Who was the most photographed American in the 19th century? Photography was still new enough (invented in 1839) that an answer can be given — and photography was already so popular that the answer is significant. Celebrity, whether merited or not, always says something about the society that sustains it.
The obvious answer to the question is Abraham Lincoln. It’s also a wrong answer. Wikipedia shows 67 photographs of Lincoln, 60 of them portraits. There are no fewer than 164 discrete portraits of our man. And this being the 19th century, it’s inevitably a man we’re talking about.
Well, then, someone else associated with the defining event of America in the 19th century, the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant? William Tecumseh Sherman? Wrong again, though he did have a relationship to the war. He was an ex-slave.
This astonishing, inspiring fact is the subject of “Picturing Frederick Douglass: The Most Photographed American in the Nineteenth Century.” It runs through Dec. 31 at the Museum of African American History. The show was curated by John Stauffer and Zoe Todd, with the assistance of the MAAH’s L’Merchie Frazier, Chandra Harrington, and Cara Liasson.
“Picturing Frederick Douglass” is more about history than art: a life in photographs, a sort of shadow biography. The show mostly consists of blown-up reproductions of photographs of Douglas, mounted on walls and temporary panels, along with extensive explanatory text.
There are also first editions of his three autobiographies, several vintage magazines, some vintage photographs (six cartes-de-visite, or calling cards, four cabinet cards, a daguerreotype), and several Ben Shahn lithographic portraits of Douglass. These are near beer compared to the photographic images. In fairness to Shahn, any artistic imagination would be hard pressed to surpass the reality of Frederick Douglass.
He was born into slavery in Maryland, in 1818. Escaping to the north in 1838, Douglass originally settled with his wife in New Bedford. The New Bedford Whaling Museum owns four carte-de-visite portraits. Douglass would later live in Rochester, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., where he died, in 1895.
Becoming active in the abolition movement, Douglass was quickly recognized as a gifted orator. His best-selling memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845) made him internationally famous. He would subsequently write “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855) and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881). Lincoln, encountering him at the White House after his second inauguration, said to Douglass, “There is no man in the country whose opinions I value more than yours.”
Douglass was one of the most remarkable men of his time. The abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison described him as “in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact — in intellect richly endowed — in natural eloquence a prodigy.” Yet remarkableness, or remarkableness alone, is no guarantee of celebrity. How then to account for all these portraits of a black man, even so accomplished a black man, in a thunderingly racist society? Furthermore, Douglass was a black man of consistently radical opinion, also supporting such heresies as women’s suffrage and Irish home rule.
Several factors combined to give Douglass this unique visual prominence. One was his outsider status. What made him so alien to so much of 19th-century American society also made him inherently intriguing. Opposites may or may not attract. They do create interest. Another was timing. Douglass arrived on the public stage almost at the same time photography did. Another was sheer duration: He remained on that stage for more than half a century. In contrast, the first photograph of Lincoln was taken in 1846 or ’47, a few years after Douglass’s first, and the last in 1865, three decades before Douglass’s.
From a photographer’s point of view, Lincoln and Douglass did have something in common. Each had an extraordinary face. Both young and old, Douglass had magnificent, leonine looks. His basso profundo visage was a model of dignity, steeliness, determination, rectitude. The camera cares nothing about race or radicalism. The camera cares only about appearance. A friend once said, “Photographers are running after him to sit for them.” It’s easy to see why. A photographer would go to Douglass for the same reason prospectors were going to California in 1849: the availability of riches.
Douglass loved the camera as much as the camera loved him. He grasped the promise and force of photography as few others of his time did. “The smallest town now has its Daguerrian gallery, and even at the cross roads — where stood but a solitary blacksmith’s shop . . . you will find the inevitable Daguerrian gallery,” he declared in an 1861 lecture, “Pictures and Progress.” “The farmer boy gets an iron shoe for his horse. And a metallic picture for himself at the same time. And at the same price.”
That last sentence indicates Douglass’s shrewdness (a quality not always found in idealists), and shrewdness also played a role in Douglass’s visibility. He was highly aware of his own image. This wasn’t out of vanity. He understood the power of his appearance in the same way an orator is aware of the timbre and projection of his voice: because of how it would affect an audience and, by extension, advance the cause he was advocating.
So Douglass consistently followed self-imposed rules when posing. He didn’t smile for the camera. He almost never appeared with other objects in the frame. A rare exception shows him holding Lincoln’s cane, a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln, after her husband’s assassination. Prior to the Civil War, he would invariably face the camera, rather than pose in profile. The aim was to present an image of unflinching force, almost staring down the lens. Or perhaps “almost” is inaccurate.
What may be the most moving image in the MAAH show, “Library at Cedar Hall,” c. 1893, shows Douglass at his desk, back to the camera. For once, we can’t see his face. It doesn’t matter. The majesty remains.
Albert Murray , the novelist and essayist, once said, “The most radical thing that you can do is to be a nice-looking, brown-skinned American guy, well dressed, well educated; that’s the most dangerous sonofabitch in the country!” That was true in 1993, when Murray said it. It was vastly more so 150 years earlier, and no one knew that better than Douglass.
PICTURING FREDERICK DOUGLASS: The Most Photographed American in the Nineteenth Century.
At Museum of African American History, 46 Joy St., through Dec. 31. 617-720-2991, maah.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.