Frederick Douglass was a firm believer in the power of pictures. In an 1861 lecture called “Pictures and Progress” by the press, Douglass wondered why photography pioneer Louis Daguerre was not more frequently compared with inventors of such vaunted technologies as the telegraph or the steamboat: “the great father of our modern pictures is seldom mentioned, though as worthy as the foremost.”
Given his admiration for photography, it should come as no surprise that Frederick Douglass sat for many portraits during his lifetime, likely more than any other American of the 19th century.
Douglass saw photography’s value as a social leveler, as it became increasingly affordable to ordinary people in the last half of the 19th century. In “Pictures and Progress” Douglass remarked: “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 court royalty…” He noted that photo studios could be found in even the smallest towns.
By distributing photographs of himself posed and clothed in the manner of his own choosing, Douglass provided alternatives to racist, stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. He acknowledged the power not only of photographs, but of images in general, including political cartoons and other printed formats: “It is evident that the great cheapness, and universality of pictures must exert a powerful though silent inﬂuence, upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations.” Those of us alive today would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.
- View more digitized images of and about Frederick Douglass.
- Browse the digitized Frederick Douglass papers from the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, including a draft of “Pictures and Progress.”
- Peruse this guide to additional resources on Frederick Douglass at the Library of Congress.
- Explore the collection that includes images of African Americans compiled by W. E. B. Du Bois for the 1900 Paris Exposition. More than a half century after Douglass had his first portrait made in 1841, W. E. B. Du Bois, a great admirer of Douglass, similarly used photography for social effect when he compiled hundreds of images of well-dressed African American children, women and men for his “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Like photographs of Douglass, these images revealed the individuality and humanity of each sitter, counteracting the notion of a single African American type.