Tracing the history-changing intertwined development of slavery and photography.
As Fox-Amato (History/Univ. of Idaho) clearly demonstrates in his first book, photography helped shape the culture and politics of slavery while slavery shaped the development of photography as an aesthetic form. The daguerreotype appeared in the United States in the 1840s, followed by the ambrotype, tintype, and lighter carte de visite, which decreased exposure time, cost, and weight, enabling pictures to be mailed. Large cities had multiple studios, and itinerant photographers filled a burgeoning market. Both North and South used photography as a cultural weapon. It gave both slavers and abolitionists a sense of legitimacy and urgency, which served to heighten the crisis and kill any hope of compromise. “Part of photography’s unique and unsettling role in the Civil War era,” writes the author, “was to open up a new cultural space…through which Americans defined the boundaries of personhood and debated the social potential of enslaved African Americans.” Of course, masters controlled how slaves were photographed, and they created a picture of a comfortable, harmonious, familial form of bondage. They forbade positive depictions of stature, literacy, or intellect. As such, the photos defined the limits of slaves’ identity, eliminating their personhood. Abolitionists used photographs to build bonds with other activists. While abolitionists widely used the image of the kneeling slave begging for justice, they did not use pictures of brandings, scars, and other evidence of violence. Those pictures only showed the victimhood of slavery, and slaves were more interested in being seen as persons. Slaves—particularly city slaves, who had more freedom and cash—were quick to have photos taken. They helped tie together the families of escaped slaves and identified loved ones whose freedom a freeman wanted to buy. As Fox-Amato shows, photography played a significant role in the debates over notions of status, identity, and community, and those boundaries regarding personhood continued well into the following century.
A groundbreaking examination of the effect of modernity on established norms.