In recent decades, our knowledge of the role photography played in shaping racialized forms of power and resistance in nineteenth-century America has grown considerably. Scholars have shown how Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz used the medium in an effort to prove the theory of polygenesis, how free African Americans and ex-slaves (such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth) drew upon photographic practices to craft public personas, and how southern whites bolstered white supremacy by circulating lynching photographs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This paper extends such inquiry by assessing slaveholders’ and enslaved people’s active engagement with early photography in the American South. As photographers spread throughout the slave states in the 1840s and 1850s, masters began commissioning portraits of their slaves. Drawing upon dozens of unpublished and little-studied photographs of enslaved people, this paper explores how slave photographs gave slaveholders a powerful new evidentiary tool to visually construct a benevolent regime amidst the contentious political climate of the antebellum era. But it also demonstrates that photography opened up opportunities for bondspeople, who occasionally purchased and obtained their own photographs. Examining the previously unrecognized importance of photographs in the everyday lives of antebellum slaves, this paper shows how such portable objects helped enslaved people to communicate and remember. Ultimately, studying the photographic practices of enslavers and enslaved people sheds new light on the political role of early American photography.
Matthew Fox-Amato, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho