Fighting Racial Prejudice Through Portraiture


Photographs by: Samuel J. Miller; Goerge Kendall Warren Image Source: Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment; The Library of Congress

Born into slavery, Frederick Douglas rose to become a prominent abolitionist, social reformer, writer and orator, after escaping bondage and moving to New York in 1838. Resolute in his cause, he lectured extensively, founded a newspaper and even wrote three autobiographies. He was also one of the first critical theorists of photography, recognising the medium’s power in counteracting the distorted representations of African-Americans. However, a lesser known fact about Douglas is the distinction he held of being, perhaps, the most photographed American of the 19th century. Having sat for 160 photographs, he surpassed even President Abraham Lincoln, who had 126 portraits to his name.

With the invention of daguerreotypes in 1839, photography reached an important milestone. For the first time, it was not limited to the rich and affluent. “The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago,” Douglas had said. Seeing the potential it wielded, Douglas saw photography as a way to overcome racial prejudice, and why he commissioned so many portraits of himself. His objective was to refute the then prevailing racist stereotypes that played into the trope of the smiling African-American. It is no wonder that he never smiled for pictures, preferring to appear stern and regal as a testament to his suffering and struggle. His portraits are devoid of any ornamentation (no elaborate backdrops), although he sometimes chose to pose against a stack of books while holding a cane that originally belonged to Lincoln, gifted to him by his wife. He posed for prominent photographers like Mathew Brady as well as African- Americans like James Presley Ball.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Better Photography.