The Camera of Liberty

January 26th, 2016

Who was the most photographed American during the 19th century? Hint: It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, or Ulysses S. Grant. WSPWH co-editor Diana Schaub explains in her review of Picturing Frederick Douglass at Law and Liberty:

This book plants firmly before us Douglass’ conviction that photography could be used for a serious public purpose. Declining the props and backdrops common in studio pictures, he kept the focus on himself (no sentimental family photos either). Through his gaze, posture, and dress, he looked every inch the dignified citizen, thereby forwarding the cause of black freedom and civil rights.

What’s more, Douglass did all he could to distribute his portrait widely. Photos were given as gifts to friends, offered to subscribers as a sign-up bonus, used to advertise lectures, and donated to charities to be auctioned. When cartes-de-visite became popular—these were card-sized photos that were avidly shared, bought, and traded beginning in the 1860s—images of Douglass and other celebrities made their way into parlor albums, alongside the family photos. Douglass, it seems, had an intuitive grasp of what is now called “branding.”

Read the whole thing.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.