the story of the most portrayed man of his time in the United States

On December 3, 1861, exactly 160 years ago, Frederick Douglass gave his ‘Lecture on Pictures’ in an overflowing room. At the Tremont Temple in Boston, he began his speech by thanking: “I take this invitation as a compliment to my enslaved race. Having summoned many other men from the highest spheres of science, philosophy or government, you also convened to someone who comes from the slave plantations. ”

Among many other points, the presentation rescued the “forgotten figure” of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the first form of photography to conquer the world as of 1839, and highlighted the democratizing nature of this new market for photochemical images: “The most A humble servant today can have a portrait that the wealth of kings could not have bought 50 years ago. ”

The press praised his conference stating that, until that moment, “no one had managed to crystallize with such clarity” the theory and practice of photography. The medium was relatively new, the negative-positive system that allowed infinite multiplication of copies was in full swing, and the last gasp of the Benjaminian aura still subsisted in a few Daguerrean galleries. Thus, Douglass, by then one of the central referents of the abolitionist movement in the United States, also became a pioneer of photographic theory. Two decades earlier, he had begun periodically posing before the lens to obtain his “perfect likeness.”

The Civil War that would end slavery had begun in April, ten months before his conference, and he, being black, could not carry weapons or fight. At the most, aspire to be a white colonel’s personal assistant. He preferred to give talks and conferences.

In 1845, with ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’ (1845), the first of his three autobiographies, he achieved immediate success that inserted him among the leading voices of anti-slavery. Born on a plantation in Talbot, Maryland, he was separated from his mother at birth and only saw her about five times before his death. Her white father was rumored to have been her own master, Aaron Anthony. He never knew the exact date on which he was born: “The vast majority of slaves,” he wrote, “know as much about their age as the horses of his, and it is the desire of many masters, in my opinion, to keep their slaves in the ignorance”. However, he discovered the importance of education when another of his masters, Hugh Auld, forbade his wife to teach him to read and write because that made slaves “unfit for work.” Renowned speaker, with a majestic presence, he fought racism with words and images.

He thought of the photographic device in the essentially functionalist conception that prevailed in the 19th century. “Our time is notable for many great and small achievements and yet there is no other more extraordinary than the quantity, perfection, variety and cheapness of its images,” he said.

For him, photography managed to expand the ability to make and appreciate images, a faculty that distinguished humans from animals, and the camera was a tool of civilization against the barbarism of slavery. “It has been a long-standing complaint by social reformers or political economists that humanity has always, everywhere, been misled by the fruit of its own inventive genius. I am not going to stop here to consider whether this bitter and widespread The claim is well founded. It is enough for the moment that it does not hold against Daguerre’s wonderful discovery and invention at present. Men of all walks of life can now see themselves as other people see them, “reflected Douglass.

His portraits equated him with any educated white man, in a time when science considered him genetically inferior. He understood industrialization and technological development as an antidote to stagnant southern conservatism. “The little sounds of the ticking of a telegraph – his presentation concluded – are like prophecies of hope for the philanthropist and warning signs for systems of slavery, superstition and oppression.”

He preferred the photo to the painting or lithographs that had historically been used to disparagingly ridicule his people. He never smiled in front of the camera and presented himself empowered, dignified, neatly dressed. He was a skillful manager of his public image and, to some extent, managed to influence the way in which the American black man was represented. Simultaneously, she has always accompanied the feminist struggle for the vote. She died in 1895, shortly after coming home from a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, where she had been applauded.

It is estimated that throughout his life he photographed himself about 160 times – surpassing even Abraham Lincoln -, through almost all existing techniques, until he became the most portrayed person of his time in the United States and perhaps in the world. . A central gesture of the former slave who in 1838, disguised as a sailor, managed to escape from the plantation to the north and, some years later, wrote: “I appear before you tonight as a thief. I stole this head from you, these limbs, this body to my master, and I fled with them. ”


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