Photo album camera, dated 1891 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.

* * *

In 1850, when Dr. Robert W. Gibbes commissioned J. T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of persons held in slavery in and around Columbia, South Carolina, for Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to use in support of his theory that African people were a separate species, daguerreotypes were at the height of fashion. Unique images imprinted by the light of the sun upon shiny silver plates coated with a vapor of iodide, first exposed in a camera obscura and then brought out by being placed over fumes of mercury, daguerreotypes were fragile objects, presented under glass in velvet-lined decorative cases. One had to hold the case open in one’s hand at just the right angle and position to view the imprint without interference from one’s own reflection. The miniature life-like detail they conveyed in rich grey-scale chiaroscuro was a marvel.   

A successful daguerreotype was a complicated collaboration between sitter and photographer, and depended upon a well-orchestrated manipulation of materials, both tangible and intangible:  camera, metal plates, chemicals, tripod, body brace, skylight, on the one hand; and on the other: demeanor, expression, projection, mood. Up-scale establishments such as Zealy’s would make every effort to encourage their customers to feel at ease. The anteroom was designed for relaxation like a fine parlor in a distinguished home, with soft carpeting under foot. There would be daguerreotypes and other artwork strewn about on tables and hung on the walls to stimulate the sense of wonder and beauty. Light refreshments might be served. Changing rooms were private, large and well-appointed spaces. During the sitting itself, assistants would help the sitter to compose their body in flattering poses, denoting intelligence, character, charm. The point of such a daguerreotype, as the great Boston photographer Albert S. Southworth put it in 1870, was “to produce in the likeness the best possible character and finest expression of which that particular face or figure could ever have been capable.” When shown examples of the results, if the sitter was not pleased with how well the image conveyed this charge, new pictures would be made.

None of this describes the experience that Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem and Renty endured at Zealy’s hands. We can see the soft carpeting of Zealy’s studio at their feet, but it does not signify a social afternoon. We can see a wall behind them, and the chair on which they sit, but these are distinct from any parlor graces. Stripped, instead,  standing exposed to the photographer and likely to one another, posed according to physiological fantasies and photographed without their contract or consent, they are disjoined in every possible way from the ordinary purpose of the studio. The deliberate perversion which thrusts them thus into the space of the event of photography is an element of their assault. Around them, all the bourgeois accouterments “turn,” as Roland Barthes once said about photographs in general, “as milk does.”  It is unthinkable that any of them was handed an example of Zealy’s work for their examination or approval. We need to understand that Renty never saw or held in his hand the daguerreotype of himself that you or I theoretically could hold in ours — and that Zealy, Agassiz, and Harvard’s curators, students and scholars bearing permission have held in theirs.  

Ownership. Copyright. Conservation. The right to immunity. The right to privacy. The right to publicity. The law has many ways of construing the social relations that derive from photographic encounters. Even now, the issues are evolving, and the jurisprudence, obviously, is not settled.  Perspective is key. In 1856, in Dred Scott v. Sanford, Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, observed that fact. He announced that, “it is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted.” But staring down the years and surmounting the trouble, he upheld “the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence.” Everything showed, he believed, that Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” exactly as instantiated by the Zealy daguerreotypes.  

Why in God’s name would Harvard not now move heaven and earth to find the legal terms by which to place Renty’s daguerreotype into the hand of a relative, his great-great-great granddaughter Tamara Lanier, and restore, in that small measure, the circle of human relation that the slave power fought to defeat?


Albert S. Southworth, “An Address to the National Photographic Association, (British Journal of Photography, vol 18 (November, 1871): 530-532, in Gary W. Ewer, ed., The Daguerreotype: An Archive of Source Texts, Graphics, and Ephemera,

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Richard Howard, trans., (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 6.

Taney, Roger Brooke, and Supreme Court Of The United States. U.S. Reports: Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 19 How 393. 1856.  Page 407.  Periodical.  Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Laura Wexler is the Charles H. Farnam Professor of Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Yale University. Her research and teaching center upon the social life of photographs...