HARTFORD — Frederick Douglass, the great American intellectual, activist, and abolitionist of the 19th century, had a clairvoyance about the power of images. He sat for more than 160 photo portraits, starting in 1841, making him the most-photographed person in 19th-century America (General George Custer comes close, at 155; Abraham Lincoln is a distant third, at 126). This was no coincidence. “Give me the making of a nation’s ballads, and I care not who has the making of its laws,” Douglass said in his famous “Lecture on Pictures,” first delivered in Boston in 1861. “The picture and the ballad are alike … the one reaching and swaying the heart by the eye, and the other by the ear.”
The clarity of that observation is eerie, almost two centuries later, where pictures, both moving and still, dominate the persuasion industry, political and otherwise — more powerful by the ounce, he said, than reams of “bad manuscripts” by the ton. And for Douglass, his own picture — the serious, dignified grace of it, always well-groomed, stoic, and finely dressed — was a weapon of war. It was a counterstrike to the degrading images of enslaved Black people that permeated American life, mawkish caricatures of minstrels, or photographs of stone-faced laborers depleted and in tatters. For Americans to think of Black people differently, he reasoned, they would first need to see them as such.
“I Am Seen … Therefore, I Am: Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass,” a new exhibition built around Douglass’s image-conscious prescience, opened last month at the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s curated by two well-known Harvard professors: Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose many books, films, and TV series on Black American history include the 2022 HBO documentary “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” ; and Sarah Lewis, whose Vision & Justice project explores what Douglass himself tuned in to, almost two centuries ago: “the foundational role visual culture plays in generating equity and justice in America.”
What might have been an academic treatise on image theory instead begins with dramatic flair. The British artist Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour,” a five-channel 2019 video piece, draws you into the exhibition. Lushly cinematic, its production values would be the envy of many midbudget Hollywood movies.
The piece engulfs with its simmering sense of dread, unfolding on five screens of varying sizes in a dark space carpeted wall-to-wall in plush crimson. Its languorous pace — Douglass strolling in an autumn glade, or on a train, or at home, or, of course, posing for a photo-portrait — has Hitchcockian tension, heightened by the strains of its sparse score, high-octave strings undergirded by heavy baritone. Disaster could appear at any moment, but no particular disaster lurks; in mid-19th-century America, disaster was all around, as the racial tensions dividing the nation pushed it closer and closer to all-out war.
Julien, whose films often engage with colonial histories and their contemporary echoes, named this one after one of Douglass’s best-known speeches, delivered in 1894, near the end of his life, at Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. The title is a bit misleading. The British Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon inhabits the Douglass role like a second skin, but the script is a composite of several of Douglass’s best-known speeches, including his fiery condemnation of Independence Day celebrations, first delivered in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852.
The piece unfolds partly in Scotland, where Douglass lent his abolitionist heft to a movement to expose financial ties to slaveholders in the United States. But the particulars are incidental to Douglass’s seething outrage at the indignities of American bondage. Every frame feels heavy with it: Douglass, face clenched, walks alone through an autumn forest back home in the United States, under gnarled branches where lynching ropes had hung. We see him while on a train chugging through the denuded Scottish hills, where he intones words written to his friend William Lloyd Garrison that year: “I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult … I am seated beside white people — I reach the hotel — I enter the same door — I am shown into the same parlor — I dine at the same table — and no one is offended.”
Pass through the enveloping space that holds the video and you’ll find the three-part exhibition of historical photographs that adds practical learning to Julien’s gut-stirring immersion. It could easily have been an array of Douglass photos taken throughout his life; significantly, it’s not. In each part, grids of tiny archaic photo portraits of Black Americans, most unnamed, are positioned behind glass, each a jewel box of unknowable past lives.
They’re the manifestation of one of Douglass’s key observations from his “Lecture on Pictures” – that “(t)he humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and court royalty.” They hew to what Douglass intended with his own image. Each of the subjects is finely dressed, often in an elegant parlor with extravagant furniture; the image of one young man, his hair neatly slicked, and seated on an extravagantly carved chair, looks regal. In Douglass’s war on American racism, these were potent weapons indeed.
They were, of course, largely artifice, created in one of the many photo studios of the day. One section of the show examines the photo studio of J.P. Ball, a Black American photo-portraitist in Cincinnati in the mid-19th century whose booming business produced untold portraits just like these over the years. (Ball’s significance is noted in Julien’s film, as Douglass sits for Ball’s camera in front of a backdrop painted with an idyllic scene of mountain and stream.)
But the ultimate triumph of the exhibition — and it is a triumph, one that catches and holds you long after you’re out the door — is its resonant echoes with our moment. The curators finish the exhibition with a selection of tiny daguerreotypes of anonymous Black Americans all taken before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery — quiet statements of their own humanity that only technological advances of the time could reveal.
But it’s counterposed with a quote from the brilliant contemporary Black British social theorist Stuart Hall, who died in 2014. More than a century after Douglass presaged its significance, Hall spoke of burgeoning visual technology’s power to redeem “through image and sound the breaches and terrors of a broken history.”
It’s hard to know what redemption will eventually look like, but it’s even harder to imagine it not thrown into fast-forward by the visual power of microtechnologies like smartphones and bodycams, which variously have captured the police murders of Black men like George Floyd, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and so many others.
“Lessons of the Hour,” the film, makes the link explicit. In one of its final scenes, Douglass addresses a lecture audience, now in contemporary dress, while the screens around him fill with aerial images of contemporary cities glittering at night. Douglass’s words gather momentum as the screens shift to a now-familiar visual motif, in this era of mass-surveillance and ubiquitous image tech: Night-vision drone footage of urban protests, their scenes a washed-out gray punctuated by white-hot flashes. “There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people in these United States in this very hour,” he roars, with an indignant glare. A polite applause rises as Douglass regains composure. He was, and is, not wrong. What more, still hidden from view, remains to be seen?
I AM SEEN … THEREFORE, I AM: ISAAC JULIEN AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS
At Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford. Through Sept. 24. 860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.org