Frederick Douglass photo find
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    My portrait of Frederick Douglass in new book

    When I walked into the community room at Mother Bethel AME Church, I saw a stack of boxes on a table. I was sure they contained the books I wanted badly to see.

    I was at the church, whose Philadelphia sanctuary had recently filled with rejoicing for the new Richard Allen stamp, for another but lesser milestone. John Stauffer, whom I had only met through email, was in town to promote a new book he had co-authored titled “Picturing Frederick Douglass.”

    I had come to hear him speak and see the book because my portrait of Frederick Douglass by Cornelius M. Battey was in it, among a catalog of others on page 193. I bought the photograph several years ago and wrote about it in a blog post. Stauffer had contacted me last year after seeing the portrait and asked to use it in the book.

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    The 1893 portrait by Cornelius Battey that I bought at auction and is included in the book.

    The book is filled with portraits (along with artwork, statues and more) of Douglass, who had more photographs taken of himself than any other person during the 19th century, according to Stauffer.

    Starting when he was 23 years old in 1841 until his death in 1895, Douglass sat for more than 160 different poses. That’s more than Civil War commander George Armstrong Custer (155), Native American warrior Red Cloud (128), poet Walt Whitman (127) and President Abraham Lincoln (126). The person who came closest was President Ulysses S. Grant (150).

    “Frederick Douglass truly loved photography,” said Stauffer, a Harvard professor who co-authored the book with Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, both at the University of Nottingham in England. Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote the epilogue, and Douglass descendant Kenneth Morris Jr., the afterword. “He sat for photos sometimes every month.”

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    The cover of the book jacket shows an 1852 daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller.

    Stauffer and his colleagues have produced a beautiful coffee-table book with a lovely 1852 daguerreotype  of a young Douglass on its cover. The book puts Douglass’ fascination with picture-taking into perspective, telling us why and how he used photography to deliver his message against slavery. Douglass did not pose out of vanity – as some have said, Stauffer noted – but because he recognized the power of this emerging phenomenon.

    The book covers 50 years of photos, most retrieved from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at the National Park Service. Stauffer says they have learned of six to seven more since publication.

    Douglass and photography came of age together, with the medium itself being invented in 1839 just as he was finding his own public voice of protest. Douglass also wrote more about photography than his peers, according to Stauffer.

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    A rare photo of Frederick Douglass smiling, 1894. Photographed by Phineas C. Headley Jr. and James E. Reed.

    “His fascination has been largely ignored,” said Stauffer. “The question is why would he spend so much time writing, championing and sitting for photographers.”

    First, Douglass “believed in the democratic nature of photography,” Stauffer said in answering his question. Photos could paint a more accurate picture of one’s self. “Douglass said he didn’t trust the white artist but he trusted the camera. … The camera does not lie.”

    That truthful image “helped the abolitionist cause,” Stauffer said, noting the “political implications of photography.” It also “highlighted the essential humanity of all human beings” and “exploded the myth” that blacks were inferior.

    Douglass realized the power of photography after the famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took a picture of Lincoln that was disseminated widely. Douglass was certain that that portrait made the president.

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph, 1894. Photo by Phineas C. Headley Jr. and James E. Reed.

    On Douglass and his photos (you can preview portions of the book):

    He dressed up for them. He is dressed nattily in the portrait on the book’s cover (and his hair style and beard changed over the years). “He wanted to show that he belonged here, too,” said Stauffer.

    He was solemn, dignified – “the persona of a man who considered himself a citizen.”

    He rarely smiled. The first photograph of him smiling was taken in 1894 by the Headley & Reed studio, owned by Phineas Headley Jr. and James E. Reed, an African American photographer in Massachusetts.

    His persona evolved, from revolutionary to statesman.

    He took very few photos with his family. Most of his photos showed the public man.

    An 1865 photo shows Douglass with what looks like a ponytail.

    His photos are closely cropped. You see very little in the background, except for him sitting in a chair or holding a book.

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    Portrait by Lydia Cadwell, 1875.

    Photographers loved shooting him, Stauffer said, and some did it for free. They’d give him 20 to 30 prints that he sold at his speeches. There were also public posters of him, along with an illustration on the Nov. 24, 1883, cover of Harper’s Weekly.

    Several photographers – including African Americans – were known to have photographed him more often. Philadelphia photographer John White Hurn was his favorite. Stauffer told the story of how Hurn helped save Douglass’ life (here’s Hurn’s account in an 1893 book by a Howard University professor).

    After John Brown and his party were captured in Harpers Ferry, WVA, in 1859, authorities found on him a letter from Douglass. They sent a telegram to the sheriff in Philadelphia, where Douglass was speaking, ordering him to be arrested. Hurn, a telegraph operator, alerted Douglass and held on to the letter until Douglass left town, ending up eventually in Canada.

    Frederick Douglass portrait

    Portrait by John White Hurn, 1862.

    Another photographer was Lydia Cadwell of Chicago, James Pressley Ball of Cincinnati and Battey. My Douglass portrait was done in 1893 in New York by Battey, who later headed the photography department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama starting in 1916. Brady also photographed Douglass in Washington in 1877.

    Stauffer says he became interested in Douglass as a 13-year-old boy living in Omaha, NE, after a friend told him he should read Douglass’ autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” It was written in 1845; he escaped from slavery in 1838.

    Stauffer’s family had moved around a lot. He read the book and loved it, he said. He started collecting reproductions of Douglass photographs.

    “I wanted to be like Frederick Douglass,” said Stauffer, who is white. “He appealed to my heroic sensibility. … a slave who had faith in God and his own ability. It was an immensely inspirational and emotional tale.”

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