Douglass and the Daguerreotype–a Guest Post by Marcy J. Dinius

Frederick Douglass, who was born on an unknown date in February 1818 and died on this day in 1895, plays a significant role in a number of forthcoming Penn Press books on American history and culture. To mark the life and legacy of the iconic civil rights activist, we invited a few of our authors to share their thoughts on Douglass with blog readers. Marcy J. Dinius, author of The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype, writes on the surprising connection between Douglass's birth and the birth of photography.

Douglass and the Daguerreotype

Frederick Douglass’s first year of life beyond slavery’s grasp coincided with the birth of photography. Word of the daguerreotype, a wondrous new invention for making incredibly detailed and lifelike images, was published in every newspaper that the self-taught reader Douglass would have encountered in late 1839 and early 1840. When he became a newspaper editor himself just a few years later, Douglass’s work kept him up-to-date on the latest technological advances as they circulated through the periodical press. He was well aware of innovations in the daguerreotype process and their anticipated contributions to the medium’s popularly celebrated accuracy and affordability. 

In time, Douglass became so interested in the connection between  the visual arts, imagination, humanity, and progress toward liberty and justice that he wrote and delivered a set of lectures on the subject between 1861 and 1865. He began both the earlier and the later versions of his “Lecture on Pictures” with an extended consideration of the daguerreotype. After being daguerreotyped multiple times in the 1840s and 1850s, the former slave had become a man in his daguerreian portrait. His lectures suggest that if his audiences were to look at his or any other African American’s image and reflect on its likeness to their own, the daguerreotype would show them the reality of blacks’ humanity and awaken them to their own.

In the sun’s “picture gallery,” Douglass declares in the most complete version of his speech, “[m]en of all conditions may see themselves as others see them. What was once the exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now within reach of all. The humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and even royalty, with all its precious treasures could purchase fifty years ago.” The “ease and cheapness with which we get our pictures has brought us all within range of the daguerrian apparatus.”

Douglass compared the daguerreian portrait to the mirror. Mirrors were once luxuries for the wealthy that had become widely available over time. Both mirrors and daguerreotypes allowed people of “all conditions” to experience a full sense of selfhood by complementing one’s internal self-awareness with an embodied view of one’s self as it appears to others. In the uniquely reflective polished daguerreotype plate, this view itself is also double: one is able to see oneself in the moment of seeing oneself as a portrait on the mirror-like surface of the image.

In Douglass’s view, shaped by discussions of daguerreotypy in popular print, the democracy realized by the birth of photography not only rested in the daguerreotype’s affordability but also in its ability to make the full experience of selfhood available to all. The the daguerreian medium differed from other forms of photography in both material characteristics and in social and political consequence. For Douglass, the daguerreian medium had become the message of democracy.

Marcy J. Dinius is an Assistant Professor of English at DePaul University. The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype will be available this spring.

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