Proclaiming Emancipation: The Story of a Photo
By John Masson and Clarissa Sansone
Dec. 26, 2012
Long before colorful paper borders, doodads, and three-dimensional stickers, scrapbooking was a wildly popular pastime—and thank goodness, for it is in a 19th-century scrapbook that the curators of the "Proclaiming Emancipation" exhibit discovered a never-before-seen image of Frederick Douglass.
The exhibit—a joint effort among the Law School, the William L. Clements Library, the Art Museum, and the University Libraries—commemorates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued Jan. 1, 1863) and runs until Feb. 18, 2013.
Frederick Douglass was one of the "most important voices" in the abolition movement, said exhibit co-curator Martha S. Jones, associate professor of history and codirector of MLaw's Program in Race, Law & History. "We wanted to show an image of Douglass" for the exhibit, Prof. Jones said, and the Clements Library had several to choose from.
Instead of opting for a well-known image, however, Clements Library Curator Clayton Lewis found something more intriguing.
"I'm always interested in the quirkier artifact," Prof. Jones said. And what could be quirkier than an unknown scrapbooker's collage, which juxtaposed images of Douglass, Henry Clay, Zachary Taylor, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? "Politics doesn't explain it," Prof. Jones said of the choice of subjects. Instead, the photos "reflect a very idiosyncratic logic."
But its location on the scrapbook page was not the only unique aspect of the Douglass photo.
Further investigation with Celeste-Marie Bernier and Zoe Trodd, two professors at the University of Nottingham in England who are cataloguing every known image of Douglass, only makes the image more intriguing. The pair, who are coauthoring Picturing Frederick Douglass, said the photo was taken about 1858, after Douglass had transitioned from a fugitive slave to a seasoned and radical abolitionist.
Their book, with a foreword by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., is scheduled for publication by W.W. Norton to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Thirteenth Amendment in 2015. The authors said the new book will prove that Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, surpassing previous record holders Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and General George Custer.
"There are more questions than answers about this image," Prof. Bernier said of the Clements photo. "Where was this copied from? How was it reproduced? And how did it end up in this scrapbook? It's a mystery photo. Still, we hope that, by the time our book comes out, we'll know more."
Questions also remain about the technology used to produce the original image, said Professors Trodd and Bernier, who are conducting their research in cooperation with John Stauffer of Harvard. The original may have been an ambrotype, although there's a considerable likelihood that it was a daguerreotype, which would make the original image an even greater rarity.
The use of the photographic medium to communicate Douglass' message also offers an important insight into the mid-19th century, when political cultural shifts echoed visual cultural shifts, Prof. Jones said. Lincoln himself was "one of the first political figures to express awareness of the power of the image, and understood the importance of exercising control over their production."
Douglass, too, understood photography as a new tool for civil rights—though he also was cautious about how a photographer might use images to undermine African-American ambitions.
"This is an exceptionally rare and powerful image of Douglass," Prof. Bernier said. "It's especially forceful for showing us Douglass' deliberate stage-management of what he described as 'the face of the fugitive slave.'"
Prof. Trodd agreed.
"This is a particularly fierce Douglass," Prof. Trodd said. "And it's a unique image—no one else holds it. You really do have something quite special."
Which adds yet another layer of meaning to an image uncovered in an anonymous scrapbook that happened to be in the Clements Library collection.
"And that," Prof. Jones said, "is just the kind of place the Clements is."
Read more feature stories