New Books Analyze the Photographs of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth – The New York Times

Supported by

Two of the most famous 19th-century African-Americans, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, commissioned formal photographs of themselves as part of their public relations strategies. Books expected out this fall reproduce virtually every known surviving portrait of them and explore their defiance of stereotypes of victimhood.
Truth, who was illiterate and born into slavery in upstate New York, shrewdly copyrighted her photos and marketed them for about 40 cents each including postage. In “Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance” (University of Chicago Press), the art historian Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzes Truth’s sittings for a half-dozen photographers.
Dr. Grimaldo Grigsby found 28 different images of Truth, dressed in striped and polka-dot dresses and white shawls and caps. (The prints can now bring thousands of dollars each.) Truth usually tried to conceal her mangled right hand, which was probably injured when she was enslaved and sent out to harvest crops. In the photo studios, she sometimes held knitting projects in her lap; white thread trailed across her skirts. She also posed with a framed oval photo of her grandson, James Caldwell, who had served in the Union Army alongside Douglass’s sons and survived a stint as a Confederate prisoner of war in Charleston, S.C.
Into her 80s, she ordered copies of her photos by the hundreds. She often had a motto printed on them: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” The proceeds helped support her career as a traveling lecturer. In 1870, a newspaper quoted her as saying that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.”
She typically posed for little-known photographers, so that hers would be the only famous name stamped on the prints. “She was just incredibly savvy,” Dr. Grimaldo Grigsby said.
Next summer, the Berkeley Art Museum will exhibit Dr. Grimaldo Grigsby’s own collection of about 60 photos of Truth and related 19th-century images, including portraits of enslaved children and wounded Civil War veterans. Dr. Grimaldo Grigsby has donated her holdings to the Berkeley museum.
She has identified some abolitionists who originally purchased the photos from Truth. In 1864, a buyer named Josephine R. Franklin wrote to Truth to obtain more photos. “I am proud to say I am the same race that you are,” she wrote, adding that she was grateful for being black and not bearing “the curse of God upon me for enslaving human beings.”
Past owners of Douglass’s images, including Susan B. Anthony, are identified in “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American” (Liveright/W. W. Norton). The book’s main authors, John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, have found more than 160 different photos of him. He began posing in the 1840s, soon after he escaped enslavement in Maryland (one of his former owners was his white father) and married Anna Murray, a Maryland freedwoman and laundress who had helped him flee.
Douglass eventually wrote essays and speeches about the “moral and social influence” of photography. In the 1860s, he described photos as potential sources of self-confidence for oppressed people: “The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.”
Douglass commissioned prints in formats including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and stereographs, as the industry’s technology evolved. He posed for white photographers as renowned as Mathew Brady, and in the photo studios of African-Americans like James Presley Ball. He worked with female photographers, too, including Lydia Cadwell, who was also an inventor of drying machines and paving tiles.
Douglass avoided the fussy painted backdrops and lavish furniture commonly used in his era’s photo studios. For props, he sometimes leaned on stacks of books and held a cane that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln — Mary Todd Lincoln gave it to him after her husband’s assassination.
The new book includes outdoor scenes along with formal portraits. In a tableau of the crowd at Lincoln’s 1865 inauguration, photographed by Alexander Gardner, John Wilkes Booth can be seen peering over a balcony railing a few rows behind Douglass.
Dr. Trodd said that when Douglass posed with groups of people, he made sure to look right into the lens. “He’s always the one who knows where the photographer is,” she said.
Artists adapted his photos into paintings and engravings, and they sometimes made his skin look lighter, his features softer and his hair smoother. In an 1849 essay, he protested that his image was given “a much more kindly and amiable expression, than is generally thought to characterize the face of a fugitive slave.”
Douglass’s second wife, the white suffragist Helen Pitts Douglass, and one of his grandsons, the violinist Joseph H. Douglass, appear in a handful of surviving images. But otherwise, for unknown reasons, he did not bring his large family to the photo studios. (Truth was also inexplicably averse to having her relatives photographed.)
The authors of “Picturing Frederick Douglass” looked for Douglass photos in hundreds of European and American repositories, including libraries, museums, schools, historical societies, government archives and auction houses. (Photos of Douglass can sell for over $10,000 each.) Images sometimes turned up in unsorted boxes and had misleading labels or no identification at all.
To determine approximately when the more mysterious photos were taken, they compared Douglass’s travel records with the addresses for the photo studios, and they studied the evolution of his preferences for facial hair in the form of goatees, walrus mustaches and bushy sideburns.
Greg French, a photography dealer and collector in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, owns a daguerreotype believed to be Douglass’s first portrait. The orator gazed somberly at the camera, light glinting on his chiseled cheekbones. Although it is only about three inches tall, it is a powerful object, Mr. French said: “You get him in his fiery youth.”