Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. Much has been written about the well-known abolitionist, who himself penned down his accomplishments in thousands of books and letters.
Today, he is not only remembered as an abolitionist but also as an author, activist, and ambassador. But did you know he was the most photographed person of his time? Yes, Douglass sat for more portraits than even Abraham Lincoln – at least 160 photographs.
That number may be nothing in today’s technological world, but in the 1800s, that was enough to make Douglass the most photographed American of his time. Army officer George Custer was behind him with 155, and then Abraham Lincoln with 126, according to artsy.net.
Having fled slavery and living amid racism, Douglass knew that words were not enough to highlight the humanity of African Americans, and so he turned to photography. The abolitionist believed that photography would force the nation to do something about racism. Having seen enough caricatures of his fellow Blacks, he believed that photography would accurately portray African Americans at a critical time in American history.
And so anytime he sat for a portrait, he was showing what black dignity and liberty looked like. John Stauffer, co-author of the book “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography Of The 19th Century’s Most Photographed American,” told NPR that Douglass “saw his political reform vision as being intimately connected to his understanding of art, particularly photography.”
The activist took his first photographic portrait three years after he escaped from slavery. At this time, the daguerreotype had been introduced. Thus, his first photograph was a daguerreotype, which he took in 1841. Douglass praised this first successful form of photography and reportedly said that because of daguerreotypes, “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
Douglass essentially believed in the true value of a camera. That even in the hands of a racist white, the camera will not lie. Thus, Douglass was of the opinion that the camera “was a wonderful critique or counter to the proliferation of racist caricatures, particularly in blackface minstrelsy,” Stauffer said.
And in almost all his 160 images, he never smiled although he appeared neatly dressed in suits.
“He did not want to be portrayed as a happy slave,” Stauffer said. “The smiling black was to play into the racist caricature. And his cause of ending slavery and ending racism had the gravity that required a stern look.”
Unlike other activists of his time, Douglass got rid of props so that the focus will be on his face while taking photos. “And he was very self-conscious of how he presented himself both as – in a photograph, as a speaker, as a writer. The public persona – the look of the public persona was crucial to him because he wanted to enter into the public sphere with an equal voice with an equal image and have the same rights as any other citizen,” said Stauffer, who wrote this book along with his co-authors, Zoe Trod and Celeste-Marie Bernier.
In 2016, about 100 of Douglass’ images were culled into a major exhibition at Boston’s Museum of African American History. Each exhibition photo shows a man taking pictures not just for fun but to tell a story.
“For Douglass, photography was the lifeblood of being able to be seen and not caricatured, to be represented and not grotesque, to be seen as fully human and not as an object or chattel to be bought and sold,” said Bernier.