‘Exposing Slavery’ shows how photography shed light on human bondage

Fox-Amato

BOOK REVIEW

Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America’’

by Matthew Fox-Amato,

Oxford University Press.

343 pages,

$39.95

BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

Developed in 1839, Louis Daguerre’s photographic process, which produced images on silver-coated copper plates, became a staple of consumer culture in the 1840s and ‘50s.

As photography “turned the planet into a picture gallery,” a new way of seeing and being, Matthew Fox-Amato, an assistant professor of history at the University of Idaho, reveals, visual technology became a powerful political tool, animating debates about the social identities of African Americans and the ideal racial order of the United States.

Through photographs of (apparently) docile and serene slaves and idyllic plantation scenes, slaveholders depicted their “peculiar institution” as humane and familial; they used daguerreotypes as well to track down runaways.  

Anti-slavery activists used the new medium to persuade Americans that bondage was immoral. Slaves, ex-slaves, and free African Americans obtained, commissioned, and exchanged visual commodities as testimony to their personhood.  

During the Civil War, photographs laid bare the tensions in the private and popular imaginations of northerners, through images of Black Union soldiers sitting on the ground or serving White officers and African American volunteers and civilians laying full claim to their humanity and inter-racial sociality.

105 COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS

Although, given the paucity of sources commenting directly on photographs, Fox-Amato’s analysis is, at times, speculative, it is often cogent and compelling. And “Exposing Slavery’’ makes excellent use of its 105 color illustrations.

To underscore that images of slaves “erased as much as they made visible,” for example, Fox-Amato shows us a photograph of “Captain,” the enslaved caretaker of the young son of plantation owner Louis Manigault.”

Nattily dressed, standing next to “Petit Louis,” Captain places his hands gingerly on a small table with a patterned cloth. This memento of black and white dependents, we learn, contrasted sharply with the treatment of Captain outside the studio.  

When Fanny Manigault told her husband that Captain was “awfully stubborn,” Louis suggested two options:  lock him up in the plantation dark room for two weeks, feeding him a diet of “homony [sp] and water”; or “have him well-flogged at the Macon jail.”

‘BRANDED HAND’

Bulky tripods and long exposure times, Fox-Amato points out, made it almost impossible for photographers to capture whippings and lashings of slaves in real time in the 1840s and ‘50s.  

In 1845, however, abolitionists commissioned and disseminated the photograph of the branded hand of a ship captain who had tried to help seven slaves escape to the Bahamas.

“Into his hands, still bearing the nail-marks of the cross,” the Boston Herald proclaimed, “ye {slaveowners} have burned the liberal signet of your malignity to man and human freedom.”

Given the publicity surrounding “Branded Hand,” Fox-Amato is struck by how rarely abolitionists used “damaged photography” before the Matthew Brady Studio produced “Scourged Back,” a carte de visite displaying the flagellated back of a fugitive slave in 1863.  

PERVASIVE, POTENT WEAPONS

While White abolitionists might have loved to circulate images of scarred bodies, many fugitive slaves, he speculates, not all that persuasively, “may have reviled” at the very idea of a slave portrait.  

Maintaining that victimization jeopardized their desire to “convey their sense of personhood,” Fox-Amato guesses they refused to sit for images evoking “past humiliation,” and “compelled” abolitionists to use engravings and lithographs if they wanted to show the suffering of bondage.

By the turn of the 20th century, Fox-Amato reminds us, visual images had become pervasive and potent weapons in the politics of race.  Postcards of lynching spread the news of mastery, never resistance, far and wide.

Fortunately, civil rights advocates, beginning with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, employed photographs as well, “for expressive, evidentiary, and community building purposes,” to contest stereotyping, document “endurance and opposition, pleasure and pride.”


Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.

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