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Photography and Civic Engagement

Race, Citizenship, and Self Image in 19th Century American Photography

by Holly Stuart Hughes

Photo of Shawn Michelle Smith

Shawn Michelle Smith

Shawn Michelle Smith is professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has published seven books, including American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (1999), Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (2004), and the award-winning titles At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (2013) and Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography (2020). Her work has been supported by fellowships from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, among others.

You’ve written a lot about the history of photography and its relationship to shifting ideas about race, identity, and citizenship in 19th and 20th century America. You’ve also written about African Americans who were making and also commissioning daguerreotypes and cartes de visite before the Civil War.     

The work of nineteenth-century African American photographers is important but so is the work of African American portrait subjects. Before owning a camera was widespread, sitters collaborated with photographers in the production of portraits, performing and co-producing images of themselves.  

Prominent African Americans who were not photographers nevertheless used photography in a number of different ways. Sojourner Truth copyrighted and sold her portraits to support herself and her work on the lecture circuit. Harriet Tubman used photographs to communicate with people on the Underground Railroad. Tubman never learned to read or write, so when she was helping people to escape and self-emancipate, letters of introduction wouldn’t work for her. Instead, she carried cartes de visite of people she knew and trusted. She would show these images to people and if they knew who the subjects represented in the photographs were, she knew she could trust them, too.  

© NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Unidentified Artist, Frederick Douglass, Feb 1818 - 20 Feb 1895, Quarter-plate ambrotype National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor

Can you explain abolitionist Frederick Douglass's views on photography?

Frederick Douglass was famously the most photographed American of the 19th century. He had himself photographed by many different photographers over the course of several decades, and I think that fact alone demonstrates how enthusiastic he was about photography as a new medium of representation and self-representation. He also gave a lecture in 1861 and 1865 titled “Pictures and Progress,” in which he had a number of fascinating things to say about photography. 

First, he heralded the revolutionary potential of photography, in that it enabled people “of all conditions” to have images of themselves, to participate in portraiture and self-portraiture. Douglass also had interesting things to say about what the effect of having all those portraits might be. He proclaimed that photographic portraiture would enable people to see themselves objectively, as if from the outside, in a way that other people saw them. And he felt that a more distanced, objective—even objectifying—view of one’s self through the photograph would enable a kind of self-contemplation and self-critique. He believed self-critique was the foundation from which all social progress would emerge. 

If photography enables you to see yourself as others see you, it also enables you to project a vision of yourself in the public sphere—to claim your status as citizen, and to claim self-ownership as well. One owns one’s image, and one owns one's self through representation. We can think about that metaphorically, but given the time in which Douglass is speaking, at the start and end of the Civil War, and given that he was a self-emancipated person and a passionate and radical abolitionist, self-ownership meant something essential to him.

"Frederick Douglass was famously the most photographed American of the 19th century."

We often now say that the camera objectifies people, but we mean that as something negative. Not Douglass. 

I was intrigued by that as well. Douglass is heralding objectification as a way to learn about yourself and improve yourself. Photography as a tool of self-representation was important as forms of political representation were also being contested and challenged. Douglass promoted photographic representation and self-representation as a way to make one's self visible and claim a space in the public sphere. 

Was Douglass envisioning African Americans viewing likenesses made by and for African Americans? Did he anticipate contests over representation, or concerns about racist depictions of African Americans?

Absolutely. Douglass talks explicitly about “a wild scramble between contending interests and forces" over representation. He felt it was important for people to be able to have representations of themselves that they admired and desired, and that they could have some control over crafting. 

When W.E.B. Du Bois organized materials for the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris exhibition, he assembled 363 photographs, mostly portraits of African Americans. What’s known about the audience who viewed the exhibit? What did Du Bois hope they would learn from the photos? 

Du Bois was a professor at Atlanta University at the time, working as a sociologist. He collaborated with students at Atlanta University to produce three different exhibits for what was called the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. One of the exhibits was a hand-written transcript of all of the legal codes in Georgia that pertained to African Americans. Another was a series of charts and graphs about different socio-economic statistics and conditions of Black life in Georgia. And then there were photograph albums of African Americans. Du Bois titled them “Types of American Negroes, Georgia, USA,” and “Negro Life in Georgia USA.” About two-thirds of the images are portraits. The last third, those that are in the “Negro Life in Georgia, USA” album, document African American neighborhoods, homes, and business establishments. 

The portraits are compelling. Some of them are of Atlanta University students and some of them are studio portraits of well-to-do African Americans. I was able to identify Thomas Askew as the photographer for at least some of the images and I'm guessing that he probably made all of the photographs for Du Bois, working from his studio archive and also photographing Atlanta students specifically for the project. Askew was an African American photographer who catered to Atlanta's Black elite, and his studio portraits are formal and very beautiful. In them people are dressed elaborately and surrounded by an array of studio props. The images look like precursors to James Van Der Zee’s well-known portraits of African Americans of the 1920s and 1930s.

Du Bois made only one, very short but telling, statement in print about the photographs. He proclaimed that visitors to the American Negro exhibit would find there photographs that “hardly square” with typical American ideas about what African Americans looked like and what they could achieve. Based on that one public statement and looking at the images themselves, I think he was trying to demonstrate African American social and economic progress in the late 19th century. 

"The late 19th century was a moment of increased reproduction of printed materials, and degrading stereotypes of African Americans were widely circulated in American culture."

The late 19th century was a moment of increased reproduction of printed materials, and degrading stereotypes of African Americans were widely circulated in American culture. There were also pseudo-scientific representations of African Americans that were aimed at trying to prove a racial hierarchy. Du Bois felt that the Askew portraits, which contested and challenged those images, would encourage viewers to see African American potential and achievement in a different way.

This is also the moment at the turn of the century when Du Bois is heralding what he called The Talented Tenth, an elite, educated class of African Americans that, at the time, he felt would be the bearers of progress and social “uplift.” Du Bois changed his views about where social progress comes from over the course of his life, but at that moment, he was trying to represent the Talented Tenth in the photograph albums. 

The albums were part of a larger American Negro Exhibit which was housed in the Palace of Social Economy at the 1900 Paris Exposition. World expositions were massive international events in the late 19th century that ran for several months with people coming from all over the world to see them. The 1900 Paris Exposition was by far the largest world exposition of its time, with roughly 48 million visitors.  In Paris, Du Bois was expecting a mostly European audience, but certainly also an international audience, including North Americans. 

© LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Sojourner Truth, three-quarter length portrait, standing, wearing spectacles, shawl, and peaked cap, right hand resting on cane. Repository: Library of Congress Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

You alluded to images that pseudo-scientific racial biologists and eugenicists commissioned of African Americans. How were they used? 

The broader intent of pseudo-scientific images was to proclaim that race was a visible characteristic and that one could see race in the body. Biological racialists were also invested in trying to use these images to create a visual and racial hierarchy. This is a kind of taxonomic effort similar to the measuring of skulls or cataloguing of facial features. It's the same kind of logic that's taken up in criminology, but it's rooted in a desire to proclaim that race is a visual characteristic that can be read in the body.

Some of the most infamous images in this category are those that the polygenesist Louis Agassiz had made in 1850. Agassiz commissioned Joseph T. Zealy to photograph enslaved men and women in South Carolina, and these daguerreotypes are currently housed at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Agassiz’s agenda was to proclaim that the different races were utterly distinct, that there was no common genesis from which they developed. He was arguing for radical biological differences between the races, and distinct intellectual capacity and moral character as well. And he was trying to suggest those characteristics were visible in the body and that one could record and study them in photographs. 

How did Du Bois’s exhibition respond to images used in scientific racism?

Du Bois is working as a sociologist at this moment and knows these racist pseudo-sciences very well. The first set of images in his albums are paired, a frontal portrait with a hard profile, somewhat reminiscent of mug shots or of pseudo-scientific images. He also titled his albums “types” of American Negroes, alluding to the scientific logic whereby eugenicists and polygenesists defined “types” of people. One of the things that I suggest is that Du Bois is making a subtle argument against eugenicist logics. First of all, he's saying “types” of African Americans. A polygenesist or eugenicist would have said there’s one type: "Negro." Period. There's no differentiation within that group. 

Another thing Du Bois’s images make evident is the long history of racial mixing in the United States. Some of that was brutally forced by rape in slavery, and some of that was by choice. But a eugenicist would have said that because the races are biologically distinct, there can be no intermixing. In his albums, Du Bois includes some portraits of very light-skinned African Americans, and these images contest the pseudo-scientific prohibition against racial mixing that polygenesists and eugenicists were trying to promote. 

In your writing about photographs of lynchings and their aftermath, you’ve explored the idea that the sharing of lynching photographs, made into postcards, helped forge a sense of white supremacist identity. Can you explain that? 

Lynching itself was a violent spectacle of torture and murder meant to terrorize African Americans. At some point, photography became part of the ritualized torture of lynching. There are photographs that demonstrate that the white crowds—sometimes hundreds or thousands of people—who were participating in lynching didn't mind being seen or photographed. In fact, people wanted to be seen participating in these spectacles of terror and white supremacy. People are posing for the camera.  The photographs demonstrate so many things about white supremacist self-conception and white privilege. Of course, lynching was always illegal. This is extrajudicial murder by a mob. And yet people were not concerned that their photograph could be used as evidence of a crime for which they could be prosecuted. The whole performance and spectacle of lynching was about proclaiming white power and a white supremacist identity. And the practice of photography at those spectacles reinforced those privileges. 

As for the circulation of lynching photographs: Sometimes they were sent to prominent African Americans as a form of terrorism and intimidation. And sometimes they were mailed to other white people as a form of instigation. They expand the circuit of white supremacy across the country and expand the terror and the proclamation of white power and privilege.  

African American activists, publishers, and journalists also used lynching photographs to condemn white lawlessness and barbarity. The journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells famously reproduced lynching photographs in her publications. The Chicago Defender newspaper and The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, also reproduced lynching photographs but they gave them captions such as “Christian America” or “Civilization in America.” Titled in this way, the images ask people to see and witness white supremacy, and they also say to judges and sheriffs: How can you let this happen? 

In your 2007 book Lynching Photographs, co-authored with Dora Apel, you follow your description of the different uses of lynching photographs with this observation:
“Photographs as evidence are never enough, for photographic meaning is always shaped by context and circulation, and determined by viewers. Photographic meaning results from what we do with photographic evidence. Lynching photographs, finally, do not deliver testimony so much as they call us to it.” Can you expand on that thought?

A lynching photograph is an extreme example but also a good example of this. The very same image could be reproduced in different contexts in radically different ways and for antithetical purposes. Photographic meaning is dependent on who's viewing a photograph, to what purposes, when, and in what cultural context. The meaning of a photograph can change over time. Who's looking at a photograph and what cultural discourses are they bringing to the photograph? How is the photograph framed and contextualized? 

This point about the difference between photographic evidence and photographic meaning was important to me because I think there's still an idea that a photograph is objective evidence. There’s of course a lot of scholarship on photographic manipulation, but I'm interested in the unmanipulated photograph, which itself can mean radically different things in different contexts. Yes, the photograph gives you some kind of evidence from some moment in time, but really all you know is that something was in front of the lens in that instant. What the photograph means has to be determined. The photograph doesn’t tell you what it means. 

Do you have advice or caution when we as viewers examine historical photographs for an understanding of the past? As a historian of visual culture, are there other things that you want to know about the making of the photo or the sharing of the photo? 

When I'm working with a historical photograph, I want to know who made it, under what conditions and why, how it was circulated, and to what end. I'm also interested not just in photographers, but in subjects. What is the relationship of the subject to the photographer? Was the image collaborative or commissioned, or was it coerced? 

Knowing those things helps one get a sense of what the meaning of a photograph might have been in a given historical moment for at least one audience. I also ask: Did the image circulate in other contexts later? Who used it, or saw it, and what did it mean to people in another context? 

I'm also interested in the potential that a photograph might have for the present and future (and this is where some of my historian friends might part ways with me). I don't think that photographs have to be limited to historical meanings -- they can reach present and future viewers and mean different things. 

If the meaning of a photo is so dependent on the reader’s culture or preconceptions, I wonder: Do you think photography is an effective tool for changing hearts and minds? Did photography do what WEB Du Bois or Ida B. Wells hoped it would do?

Photography is one tool among many. The emancipatory projects are so huge and the problems are so entrenched. No, photography didn’t end racism or violence. But did it enable some people to see other people differently? I'd like to think so. Yes. 


This interview was conducted by Holly Stuart Hughes, Independent Editor, Writer & Grant Consultant, Former Editor-in-Chief, PDN, in May 2022.