KELLY VAUGHAN ’17
Frederick Douglass, one of the most notable African-American ex-slaves turned abolitionists, is also the most photographed individual of the 19th Century. In October 2015, Harvard University Professor, John Stauffer, recently published “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American,” a critical examination of Douglass as the subject of numerous photographs throughout the 19th century. The work is a compilation of these photographs ranging from 1841 to 1895, as well as illustrations, handwritten speeches, and political cartoons. Stauffer’s writing focuses on Douglass’ belief that a
“camera tells no lies,” and therefore revealed the deeply cruel injustice of slavery.
Department Chair of American Studies at Trinity, Professor Scott Gac, told the Tripod, “In a moment when we are saturated with images of black activists, it’s important to explore the representations of the most famous African American activist, Frederick Douglass.” Douglass was obsessed with photography, and wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War. Stauffer’s book examines Douglass’ legacy through historic and current visual aids. Stauffer explained in an interview with NPR, “the look of the public persona was crucial to him because he wanted to enter into the public sphere with an equal voice with an equal image and have the same rights as any other citizen.”
Stauffer’s passion for the collection of photographs of Douglass stems from his fascination with Douglass’ character. Stauffer told NPR, “Douglass specifically – in print, he said that he did not want – he did not want to be portrayed as a happy slave. The smiling black was to play into the racist caricature. And his cause of ending slavery and ending racism had the gravity that required a stern look.” Douglass understood the affect And so he tended to confront the viewer, look directly into the camera. Stauffer continues to say, “And so it was a confrontational pose that countered what most photographic manuals instructed the photographer – to position the sitter in a visionary gaze so that you looked up or beyond the camera, looking far away.” David Blight, a Professor of American History at Yale University, noted, “Douglass emerges here out of photographic technology’s earliest years, with majestic beauty, and through the power of his own self-creations. The book is the result of intrepid research and brilliant analysis; it charts Douglass’ life visually, allowing him to look back at us wryly, wistfully, wrathfully.”
John Stauffer is a Professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies. His research areas include 19th Century American Literature and Culture, Slavery and Abolitionist, Religion, and Protest Literature. He currently teaches a class at Harvard titled, “The Rhetoric of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.” Stauffer has provided commentary on the work of numerous other scholars’ on the Civil War, including serving as a panelist at a Yale University lecture on Manisha Sinah’s recent book, “The Slave’s Cause;” Sinah is a Professor of Afro American Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Stauffer’s lecture will be at Trinity this Thursday, Apr. 14 at 4:30 in the Rittenberg Lounge in Mather Hall.