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How the camera confronted slavery — and still does

Carrie Mae Weems, "While Sitting Upon the Ruins of Your Remains, I Pondered the Course of History" (2016-17), from "To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes" (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press, 2020).Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The course of history didn’t change in 1839, with the invention of photography. What did change was our collective relationship to history. Camera-captured images altered the public’s understanding of events — or, at the very least, made it harder to ignore them. The novelist Wright Morris, who was also a very good photographer, once asked a deeply provocative question: If there had been someone with a camera when Christ arrived at Golgotha, how would that have changed our understanding of events on that particular hill on that particular day?

The American Golgotha isn’t a place but an institution: slavery. This isn’t exactly a controversial statement. Presumably, not even the proudest of Proud Boys would put in a good word for slavery. But even as some people continue to defend three-dimensional marble objects that celebrate Confederate generals, it’s useful to think about the role of two-dimensional pieces of metal and paper in how we do and do not comprehend slavery. If those statues help avoid understanding, and they do, then such photographs — what few we have — are crucial to furthering it.


Such understanding is much on the mind of the photographer and conceptual artist Carrie Mae Weems. She’s the woman dwarfed by the columns, standing at the center of the accompanying photograph. It’s easy to overlook her. Overlooking is one of the points Weems wants to make. The architectural element is what seems to matter within the frame, not the human element. Still, it’s there — she’s there — and at the intersection of the architectural and the human resides Weems’s chief concern: the historical element.

Its classical elegance notwithstanding, that architecture is no less classically inhumane. Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, was a slave society. The white colonnade, the balcony running the length of the second floor: This is a Southern plantation. That Weems is Black and dressed as a house slave might have been offers subtle, if unmistakable, commentary. So does the title of the photographic essay the image belongs to, “While Sitting Upon the Ruins of Your Remains, I Pondered the Course of History” (2016-17).


Weems is presenting, and playing with, the standard image of the antebellum South. The unreality of that image is no small part of its appeal. Quentin Tarantino, of all people, has made this point particularly well. Tarantino doesn’t make comedies, but his movies can be very witty. One of the slyest jokes is in “Django Unchained” (2012). It’s the name of the plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s slaveholder: Candieland. A sugar-coated course of history does not lend itself to pondering. It does, however, mean a lot of bookings for plantation weddings. Or at least used to.

The Candieland view, as one might call it, is far more pernicious than, say, Confederate monuments are, not least of all because it extends so far beyond the South. There are obvious reasons it’s maintained such a “Gone With the Wind” hold on the popular imagination. “Gone With the Wind” is one of them. Others include wishful thinking, prettiness, willful ignorance. “Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land” long ago took on a very different meaning from the one originally intended. Yet there’s also the strictly practical matter of visual disproportion. It’s not just that mansions are so much more attractive than slave quarters. Slave quarters, and slaves, were hidden away as manor houses were not.


Joseph T. Zealy, "Jack (driver), Guinea, plantation of B. F. Taylor, Esq., Columbia, S.C.," 1850, from "To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes" (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press, 2020).Courtesy Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

A recent book, “To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes” (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press), includes Weems’s “While Sitting Upon the Ruins” photographs, but its emphasis is on the images mentioned in the subtitle. The Zealy daguerreotypes are 15 portraits of male and female slaves taken in South Carolina in 1850. The photographs are in the collection of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The book’s editors are Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis.

The images have an unusual history. The Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, notably racist even by antebellum standards, commissioned them. For many years they were forgotten, only to turn up in 1976. They were at once a great find, being among the few images of antebellum slaves and slavery, and a source of consternation. “I remember just looking at them over and over. And over,” Weems has said of the first time she saw the daguerreotypes. The photographer, Joseph T. Zealy, recorded his subjects more in the manner of taxonomic samples than human beings. In 2019, a descendant of two of the subjects sued Harvard, saying that she should be the rightful owner of those daguerreotypes, not the university. The suit is ongoing.

There’s an unnerving tension between the sitters’ gravity and how disrespectfully Zealy and Agassiz approach them. We know only their first names: Jack, Renty, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Alfred, Jem. Conversely, the full names of their owners are given. All are shown either bare chested or completely naked, from behind, in front, or in profile.


The subjects in Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” and “Rebellious Slave” are indistinguishable from other male figures in Renaissance sculpture, other than by title (and skill of rendering). If anything, there’s a sense of heightened nobility, an enhanced humanity. Distinguishability, in the sense of set apart from humanity, is the effect Zealy and Agassiz wanted. These men and women are presented as specimens rather than individuals.

The images represent another unnerving tension, between past and present. The daguerreotype was long ago superseded as a photographic process. But it offers superb clarity and precision of detail. All photographs collapse time. The daguerreotype gives that collapse the look of an eternal present. There are no sepia tones or mists-of-time fuzziness. The precision and particularity of these images gives them a startling immediacy. Photography, Walker Evans once wrote, should be “an open window looking straight down a stack of decades.” With the Zealy daguerreotypes, “should be” becomes “is.”

The immediacy becomes outright shocking when the subject is something so chronologically distant yet emotionally overwhelming. Slavery is an abstraction as are not, say, imprisonment, which cannot occur without incarceration, or murder, which cannot occur without killing. This makes an ability to visualize it all the more incumbent morally. Slavery is something that the Constitution (eventually) banned. How much sooner would that have happened had people, other than its beneficiaries and victims, been able to see it?


“Until the pictures of the slave’s sufferings were drawn and held up to the public gaze,” the Southern abolitionist Angelina Grimké wrote in 1836, “no Northerner had any idea of the cruelty of the system, it never entered their minds that such abominations could exist, in Christian, Republican America.” Note both the date and the word “drawn.” Grimké wrote three years before the camera arrived to supersede in reliability pen and brush, providing the possibility of an altogether different degree of exactitude and persuasiveness.

The forensic power of the photographic image lies in its chemically obtained veracity. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was a watershed in the anti-slavery movement. Introduced to her a decade later, Abraham Lincoln reportedly greeted Stowe by saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Yet even so influential a polemicist acknowledges in the novel the unique power of the image: “At this table was seated Uncle Tom,” Stowe writes, whom “we must daguerreotype for our readers.” If anything, the ungainliness of the verb emphasizes the authority of the action.

Southworth & Hawes, "The branded hand of Captain Jonathan Walker," 1845. Image courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Seven years later, a writer in the Boston abolitionist newspaper The Liberator underscored Stowe’s point, “I would give something if you could see the daguerreotype of the family standing upon the platform, to be sold at auction. But, no — I recall the wish. Thank God that you cannot see that picture, because it would haunt you like a dreadful vision.”

There was a serious problem — two, actually — with attempts to document slavery photographically. The first was access. In his 2019 book, “Exposing Slavery,” the historian Matthew Fox-Amato makes a point so obvious as to be now easily overlooked in an age where cameras are nearly as common as people. “An engraver or illustrator could easily imagine a barbarous slaveholder with his whip in the air, poised to lash the back of a slave,” Fox-Amato writes. “A photographer, on the other hand, needed to be present.”

In the unlikely event that a photographer might be given access to slave auctions and plantation whippings, the cumbersomeness of early cameras and the long exposure times they required would have severely restricted what a photographer could show.

So it makes sense that what are likely the two most famous images of slavery involve not activity but a sitter posing (as in the Zealy daguerreotypes, though for a very different purpose and in a very different manner). It also makes sense that neither shows someone in bondage. One is of a white man in the North, the other of a runaway slave safely behind Union lines. What makes both photographs so memorable is how intensely corporeal they are. They endow the abstraction of slavery with a physicality that remains shocking more than a century and a half later.

Jonathan Walker was a shipwright from Harwich who moved to Florida in the late 1830s. In 1844, he agreed to help seven slaves escape to the Bahamas. Their boat was captured. Part of Walker’s punishment was having the letters “SS,” for “slave stealer,” burned into his palm. Walker moved North after his release. In Boston, the city’s leading daguerreotype firm, Southworth & Hawes, photographed the scarred palm.

“The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker” is just 2 inches by 2½ inches. Its human scale works to emphasize the inhumanity of the act — in the way a whisper can register more powerfully than a roar. The great abolitionist orator and writer Frederick Douglass remarked upon “the sensation produced by the exhibition of the branded hand. It was one of the few atrocities of slavery that roused the justice and humanity of the North to a death-struggle with slavery.”

It was also one of the even fewer atrocities of slavery visited on a white man. Does burned white flesh matter more than flayed Black flesh? One way to answer that question is to note that while we know Walker’s full name, we’re not even sure of the first name, let alone the surname, of the freed slave shown in “The Scourged Back.” The photograph is alternately known as “Whipped Peter” (was that his first name?) and “Gordon” (was that his first name or surname?).

He had escaped from a Louisiana plantation in March 1863, reaching a Union camp near Baton Rouge. That’s where the photograph was taken. He would later enlist in the Union army. The network of scars on his back would beggar belief — except, of course, that we can see them. A military surgeon serving at the camp wrote to his brother: “If you know of any one who talks about the humane manner [italics in original] in which the slaves are treated, please show them this picture. It is a lecture in itself.”

McPherson & Oliver, "Gordon, or Whipped Peter (The Scourged Back)," 1863File photo (Custom credit)

“Lecture” is such a striking word here, lectures tending to contain many more words than the thousand that a picture is proverbially worth. The term also conveys a moral dimension — “to lecture” someone connotes something beyond just imparting information.

We have for so long lived with — no, we live within — such an image glut it’s hard to imagine the indispensability of a few discrete photographs in imparting information, let alone having a clarion moral impact. The reason it’s valuable to dwell on photography and slavery is the reminder that such an indispensability and impact were once the case — and still can be.

One of the two conditions working to prevent the documentation of slavery, the limits of camera technology, soon ceased to be an issue. Yet that has done far less to affect the other issue, access, than one might think. Those letters on Walker’s palm are a reminder of that: “SS” took on a very different meaning a century later. Images of the death camps came only after the camps were liberated. Controlling what people outside the barbed wire see plays a crucial part in controlling how people inside the barbed wire suffer.

Today we are alert to surveillance technology and the camera’s central role in it. Yet we should also be alert not just to how authority is observing the public but what authority doesn’t allow the public to observe. A useful way to think of the visual control practiced in the 19th century by slave owners, in the 20th century by the Nazis, and in the 21st century (to cite just one example) by the Chinese government against the Uighurs is as surveillance technology in reverse: preventing watching rather than using watching to prevent. Looking at the Zealy daguerreotypes and “The Branded Hand” and “The Scourged Back” helps us better ponder, as Weems says, the course of history. Thinking about them may help us better ponder the course of the present.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.