Visibility of a visionary
Keywords:Frederick Douglass, visual culture, race, daguerrotype, portrait photography, antebellum era
Historically, tools of ocularity have enabled the racialization of marginalized individuals through invisibility. During the antebellum period, these tools were coopted to naturalize discriminatory beliefs without agency from the photographed subjects. Douglass’ portrait taken by Samuel Miller showcases the subversiveness of his use of the daguerreotype to uncover race relations in antebellum America. Douglass knowingly sat for the photograph as an effort to move away from the visual scrutiny Black individuals faced. This is exemplified in the more than 160 pictures he sat for throughout his lifetime. The picture in possession by the Art Institute of Chicago showcases Douglass agency and right to see and look back. A picture that redefined Blackness by breaking through the racial categories that visually maintained white supremacy as hegemonic.
This artifact is also a symbol of the overwhelming number of African American contributions in visual culture that are unfortunately still overlooked by scholars. Whether it is as sitters, daguerreotypists, gallery owners, etc.; visual culture was profoundly impacted by Black Americans during the 19th century. For instance, Ball, who was both a Daguerrean gallery owner and a daguerreotyper was featured in Frederick Douglass’ paper, highlighting the importance of self-representation and self-possession. Moreover, the mystification of pictures that uncovered race relations in America is disputed. To regard photography that depicts oppression as artistry is contentious. However, in this analysis, I propose a way to highlight the visualization of invisible gazes that have been taken away the right to look back.
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