Frederick Douglass and the Power of Pictures

Frederick Douglass was a firm believer in the power of pictures. In an 1861 lecture called “Pictures and Progress,” 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.

Frederick Douglass, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, 1870. Photo by George Frances Schreiber. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a18122

Frederick Douglass, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, 1870. Photo by George Frances Schreiber. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a18122

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.

Frederick Douglass, between 1880 and 1890. Photo by George Kendall Warren. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.56175

Frederick Douglass, between 1880 and 1890. Photo by George Kendall Warren. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.56175

Frederick Douglass, between 1865 and 1880. Brady-Handy photograph collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.05089

Frederick Douglass, between 1865 and 1880. Brady-Handy photograph collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.05089

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.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1862. Photo by John White Hurn. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07422

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1862. Photo by John White Hurn. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07422

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3 Comments

  1. Maurice
    February 29, 2020 at 7:35 am

    Definitely one of my heros.

  2. mary
    February 29, 2020 at 9:39 pm

    Excellent content

  3. mary
    February 29, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    need to see more information like this.

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