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Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American

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Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Freder Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age. Now, as a result of the groundbreaking research of John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Douglass emerges as a leading pioneer in photography, both as a stately subject and as a prescient theorist who believed in the explosive social power of what was then just a nascent art form. Indeed, Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of Civil War, he wrote more extensively on the subject than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were "riveted" by the war and wanted a speech only on "this mighty struggle." He frequented photographers’ studios regularly and sat for his portrait whenever he could. To Douglass, photography was the great "democratic art" that would finally assert black humanity in place of the slave "thing" and at the same time counter the blackface minstrelsy caricatures that had come to define the public perception of what it meant to be black. As a result, his legacy is inseparable from his portrait gallery, which contains 160 separate photographs. At last, all of these photographs have been collected into a single volume, giving us an incomparable visual biography of a man whose prophetic vision and creative genius knew no bounds. Chronologically arranged and generously captioned, from the first picture taken in around 1841 to the last in 1895, each of the images—many published here for the first time—emphasizes Douglass's evolution as a man, artist, and leader. Also included are other representations of Douglass during his lifetime and after—such as paintings, statues, and satirical cartoons—as well as Douglass’s own writings on visual aesthetics, which have never before been transcribed from his own handwritten drafts. The comprehensive introduction by the authors, along with headnotes for each section, an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and an afterword by Kenneth B. Morris, Jr.—a direct Douglass descendent—provide the definitive examination of Douglass's intellectual, philosophical, and political relationships to aesthetics. Taken together, this landmark work canonizes Frederick Douglass through a form he appreciated the most: photography. Featuring: Contributions from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (a direct Douglass descendent) 160 separate photographs of Douglass—many of which have never been publicly seen and were long lost to history A collection of contemporaneous artwork that shows how powerful Douglass’s photographic legacy remains today, over a century after his death All Douglass’s previously unpublished writings and speeches on visual aesthetics


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Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Freder Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age. Now, as a result of the groundbreaking research of John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Douglass emerges as a leading pioneer in photography, both as a stately subject and as a prescient theorist who believed in the explosive social power of what was then just a nascent art form. Indeed, Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of Civil War, he wrote more extensively on the subject than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were "riveted" by the war and wanted a speech only on "this mighty struggle." He frequented photographers’ studios regularly and sat for his portrait whenever he could. To Douglass, photography was the great "democratic art" that would finally assert black humanity in place of the slave "thing" and at the same time counter the blackface minstrelsy caricatures that had come to define the public perception of what it meant to be black. As a result, his legacy is inseparable from his portrait gallery, which contains 160 separate photographs. At last, all of these photographs have been collected into a single volume, giving us an incomparable visual biography of a man whose prophetic vision and creative genius knew no bounds. Chronologically arranged and generously captioned, from the first picture taken in around 1841 to the last in 1895, each of the images—many published here for the first time—emphasizes Douglass's evolution as a man, artist, and leader. Also included are other representations of Douglass during his lifetime and after—such as paintings, statues, and satirical cartoons—as well as Douglass’s own writings on visual aesthetics, which have never before been transcribed from his own handwritten drafts. The comprehensive introduction by the authors, along with headnotes for each section, an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and an afterword by Kenneth B. Morris, Jr.—a direct Douglass descendent—provide the definitive examination of Douglass's intellectual, philosophical, and political relationships to aesthetics. Taken together, this landmark work canonizes Frederick Douglass through a form he appreciated the most: photography. Featuring: Contributions from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (a direct Douglass descendent) 160 separate photographs of Douglass—many of which have never been publicly seen and were long lost to history A collection of contemporaneous artwork that shows how powerful Douglass’s photographic legacy remains today, over a century after his death All Douglass’s previously unpublished writings and speeches on visual aesthetics

30 review for Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Before the advent of photography in the 19th century, only the rich saw their images immortalized. Once Daguerre worked his silver halide magic in the 1830s, however, a more democratic form of art became available to the general populace, one which required only minutes to create and which (within a few decades) would be equally easy to disseminate. Perhaps no man better understood the possibilities of this new medium than Frederick Douglass - ex-slave, abolitionist, orator, writer, statesman, v Before the advent of photography in the 19th century, only the rich saw their images immortalized. Once Daguerre worked his silver halide magic in the 1830s, however, a more democratic form of art became available to the general populace, one which required only minutes to create and which (within a few decades) would be equally easy to disseminate. Perhaps no man better understood the possibilities of this new medium than Frederick Douglass - ex-slave, abolitionist, orator, writer, statesman, violinist, and all-around badass - who made it a point to be photographed as frequently as possible and who carefully curated his appearance in those images. Before representation was a thing, Douglass was brilliantly leveraging it to combat the perception of black people as violent savages or puerile idiots. Stauffer, Trodd, and Bernier's Picturing Frederick Douglass charts the course of this decades-long curation, presenting the 160 extant photographs of Douglass, with special attention given to the sixty which have best endured or to which the most history is attached. The quality of those sixty plates is excellent, with solid if not inspiring captions detailing the circumstances under which the photo was taken and details about the photographers, but the section containing the full catalog of images is of necessity much spottier in appearance. (Read: don't expect that daguerrotype that spent 150 years in someone's damp attic to look like a high res digital image; they're only there for completist purposes anyway.) Aside from the pictures, this well-crafted volume also includes a strong introduction that provides a basic overview of Douglass's life, his status as the most-photographed American of the 19th century, and the details of the project whose final result is the book in hand. Toward the end, the authors include three "essays" (really lectures) by Douglass on photography/pictures which are somewhat redundant (Douglass mined his own material and sharpened it over time) but which ultimately touch on the importance of representation. The book concludes with an excellent epilogue from Henry Gates Jr. (which I'd actually read first) and an afterword by Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., who's a descendant of Douglass's. If I had to pick a bone with any aspect of this excellent work, it would be about the section on the legacy of the photographs featured here, which covers contemporary adoptions of the images of Douglass from different photographs taken over his lifetime. The authors do a good job of pointing out contemporary murals and statues which reuse Douglass's images, but no effort seems to have been made to contact the various artists regarding why they chose that particular version of Douglass, and the photographs of the reworkings are scaled to fit several on the page, which means detail in those images gets lost. This is a minor quibble, however, as a thorough exploration of this kind of thing is a bit outside the purview of this volume. Picturing Frederick Douglass is a meticulous and fascinating look at one man's (successful!) quest to control his own image. If you're looking for an unusual way to start a conversation about representation, this book is a great place to start.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    NF book group theme: Black History Month Biography. This book is incredible. The photographs are gorgeous and fascinating, the discussion and analysis is very interesting (almost every question or comment my book group had about the photos, such as the lack of smiles, was explained). I got a bit bogged down in the speeches themselves and didn't read them thoroughly. I especially enjoyed the afterword by Douglass' (and Booker T. Washington's) descendant about his reaction to the photos. I learned NF book group theme: Black History Month Biography. This book is incredible. The photographs are gorgeous and fascinating, the discussion and analysis is very interesting (almost every question or comment my book group had about the photos, such as the lack of smiles, was explained). I got a bit bogged down in the speeches themselves and didn't read them thoroughly. I especially enjoyed the afterword by Douglass' (and Booker T. Washington's) descendant about his reaction to the photos. I learned a lot from this book and I really enjoyed it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Amazing!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    Review will follow.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Elaine

    Used for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Wrap-Up Day. I don't have time to cover Douglass' life after his escape from slavery extensively, so students will look at three books that offer different perspectives on his entire life. I've marked several interesting photographs and political cartoons for students to consider. Used for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Wrap-Up Day. I don't have time to cover Douglass' life after his escape from slavery extensively, so students will look at three books that offer different perspectives on his entire life. I've marked several interesting photographs and political cartoons for students to consider.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Michelle Wallace

    An excellent book. I have long admired this man. This book informed me that he was the most photographed American of the 19th century. I now also know that his great-grandson was married to the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. Amazing!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He took a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed. This gorgeous volume contains 160 photographs of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of his century. The photos, taken from 1841 to 1895, are extensively annotated. The book also includes pictures of Douglass that are re Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He took a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed. This gorgeous volume contains 160 photographs of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of his century. The photos, taken from 1841 to 1895, are extensively annotated. The book also includes pictures of Douglass that are representations of him by others, including cartoons, sketches, and posters. Most importantly, it contains a biography and the text of a number of Douglass’s speeches, especially those on the functions of the visual image, and how images could and should change perceptions of Americans about the morality of slavery. Douglass was way ahead of his time in many ways, one of which was his understanding of the power of pictures to mesmerize, to capture truth, to counter caricatures by expressing the complexity of the human condition, and to stir the emotions. Recognition of the revolutionary potential of representation led Douglass to believe that photography would establish that blacks held as property were not in fact “things” but human beings. He capitalized on his own dignified appearance to help spread this message, distributing his own photos widely. But as Douglass’s ancestor, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., points out in an Afterword, it was not only the pictures of Douglass and others that established that all people were created equal: "His words painted a portrait of profound depth and refinement, and they destroyed the enslaver’s hoax that there are people born for a life of servitude.” The authors, in their Introduction, also credit the reinforcing influence of both Douglass's textual and visual avenues of communication, with his pictures becoming a new type of vocabulary: "Indeed, his portraits and words sent a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers.”
 Evaluation: This book, of “coffee-table” quality, should be an essential part of any library on history as well as art. Frederick Douglass, had and still has, so much to teach us about heroism, persistence, intelligence, and integrity.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Carol Johnson

    More like 4.5. It is a important reference source about Frederick Douglass. Very nice to have a catalog raisonne of Douglass' photographic portraits along side his writings on photography. I believe a few of the photo captions are incorrect, otherwise I would have given it 5 stars. More like 4.5. It is a important reference source about Frederick Douglass. Very nice to have a catalog raisonne of Douglass' photographic portraits along side his writings on photography. I believe a few of the photo captions are incorrect, otherwise I would have given it 5 stars.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Very thoughtful analysis of Douglass's use of photography and image. He carefully created and deployed photographs and other pictures of himself as part of a strategic campaign to literally change the image of the African-American man in the US. Very thoughtful analysis of Douglass's use of photography and image. He carefully created and deployed photographs and other pictures of himself as part of a strategic campaign to literally change the image of the African-American man in the US.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    Excellent book full of information about Douglass' love of photography which probably led to his willingness to be photographed so frequently. Excellent book full of information about Douglass' love of photography which probably led to his willingness to be photographed so frequently.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bob

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  13. 4 out of 5

    Global Donnica

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ericka McDonald

  15. 5 out of 5

    Al Lloyd

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tee Haynes

  17. 5 out of 5

    Timothy D Schroeder

  18. 4 out of 5

    Graeme

  19. 5 out of 5

    Debra Glassco

  20. 4 out of 5

    Chuck

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ownbymom Ownby

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dr. Bill E. Lawson

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gwendolyn B Banks

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mary Lou

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike Emett

  27. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Barrett

  28. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Joslyn

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kim Denning-Knapp

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Walker

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