On Monday, the third day of September, 1838, in accordance with my resolution, I bade farewell to the city of Baltimore, and to that slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood… MY free life began on the third of September, 1838.
In his second autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and his Complete History to the Present Time (1881), Frederick Douglass details how he escaped slavery and his resulting life as a free man.
That journey began on a train in Baltimore, where he “pos[ed] as a free sailor wearing a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck.”
In choosing this plan upon which to act, I considered the jostle of the train, and the natural haste of the conductor, in a train crowded with passengers, and relied upon my skill and address in playing the sailor as described in my protection, to do the rest. One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other seaports at the time, towards “those who go down to the sea in ships.” “Free trade and sailors’ rights” expressed the sentiment of the country just then.
Less than 24 hours after leaving Baltimore, Frederick reached New York City and became a free man due to geography. New York had abolished slavery in 1828.
Anna would join him. They would marry, move to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and adopt the last name “Douglass.” He became a persuasive speaker on abolition for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His oratory skills led some to suspect he had not really been a slave.
In 1845, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, to lay those doubts to rest. The narrative gave a clear record of names and places from his enslavement.
The photographic image was made by exposing a silver-plated copper sheet to iodide, which created a light sensitive coating. The plate was then exposed to light for a range of 5 to 70 minutes, held over mercury vapors, and finally fixed with hypo solution.
Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of civil war, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.” He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.
The 17 engravings in his 1881 autobiography “appear to show a tall, bold, figure, possessed of extraordinary character, revealed in his Victorian posture and comportment.” They contrast with “the prevailing stereotype” of African-Americans as “servile, buffoonish minstrel characters.”
Douglass “cultivated his image through photography” as he sat for more than 160 portraits. To Douglass, photography was “the most democratizing of the arts.”
He also saw it as a tool for creating an image of black manhood in America that was neither comical nor derogatory, as many depictions of African-Americans were at the time. Douglass almost never smiled, an expression he viewed as too “amiable.” He was careful to be photographed in settings that emphasized dignity, accomplishment and power, all things denied to those who were enslaved as he had been.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes Douglass as “one of the first critical theorists of photography.”
He thought Samuel Morse’s telegraph, which collapsed space and time, an important technology. But he believed photography to be the more important invention.
The great discoverer of modern times, to whom coming generations will award special homage, will be Daguerre. Morse has brought the seeds of the earth together, and Daguerre has made it a picture gallery. We have pictures, true pictures, of every object which can interest us … The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.
Douglass realized that photographs needed to be shared publicly, just like words, to have an impact.
Through the dissemination of his image and word, Douglass photographed and wrote himself into the public sphere, became the most famous black man in the western world, and thus acquired cultural and political power.
The book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (2015) contains both his images and his writings. It “is a treasure trove for several fields, including photography history and practice, art histories of the African diaspora, and histories of American art.”
Picturing Frederick Douglass contains the full text of his lectures on photography: “Lecture on Pictures”, “Life Pictures”, “Age of Pictures” and “Pictures and Progress.”
“The few think, the many feel,” he reminded his listeners, “the few comprehend a principle, the many require an illustration.” Ideas alone were not enough to galvanize the public into action. To do that, one needed to deploy art, to broadcast “the soul of truth.”
Long before Neil Postman came down on the side of text (typography) over image (photo or screen), Douglass “emphasized the picture over the text as more accessible and as a shared human language.”
- Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman (1987)
- Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd (2015)