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, http://www.daguerreotypearchive.org/TEXTS/P8710002_SOUTHWORTH_PHILA-PHOTO_1871-10.pdf
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, www.loc.gov/item/usrep060393a/.
Plaintiff Cheri Pierson accuses the disgraced financier of a “brutal” sexual attack at the Manhattan mansion of Jeffrey Epstein.
At the heart of What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along? is the idea that matriarchy never really died but rather has transformed.
Larry Towell’s images reveal a little-seen, isolated world and raise questions about the unforgiving impact of tradition on families.
Mexican photographer Alfredo De Stefano’s photographs of barren deserts and other works reflecting on the climate crisis will be displayed in a not-for-sale section.
SCAD’s booth at Design Miami/ features glazed tiles by alumni artists Nicolas Barrera, Lauren Clay, Gonzalo Hernandez, Cory Imig, Abel Macias, and Nikita Nagpal.
Whether Musk’s weird still life post was an act of trolling or an act of cringe is up to you, but the memes speak for themselves.
For roughly half an hour, art collectors had to consider a world in which they didn’t get that Alex Katz work.
Join the New-York Historical Society on December 9 for a virtual conversation with Kellie Jones, Rujeko Hockley, and Cameron Shaw on the past, present, and future of Black art in the US.
From art fairs to alternative spaces that may not be on your radar, here’s a run-down of what to see (and eat and sip) in Miami. No NFTs, we promise.
Protests are erupting across the country in response to President Xi Jinping’s strict zero-COVID policy.
The unique MFASA at the Institute of American Indian Arts offers mentorships with world-renowned Indigenous artists, flexible schedules, and access to one of the US’s cultural capitals.
What does it mean when the world’s richest person trolls us?
Ghenie’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe are a relentless representation of a howling, turbulent tragedy, a face broken into crude sideways slewings and gougings and gorgings of paint.