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Picture This: Frederick Douglass Was The Most Photographed Man Of His Time


And more on another activist, Frederick Douglass. Many know him for his daring escape from slavery, his rise to leadership of the abolitionist movement, perhaps even his controversial marriage to a white woman. But what you may not know is that he also made history in another way. He was the most photographed person of his time.

Frederick Douglass sat for more portraits during the 1800s than even Abraham Lincoln, and that was no accident. Douglass wanted to ensure a more accurate portrayal of black Americans at a pivotal time in American history - that according to a new book called "Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography Of The 19th Century's Most Photographed American." One of the three co-authors of that book, John Stauffer, joins me now from the studios at Harvard University, where he is a professor of English and African-American studies. Professor Stauffer, welcome.

JOHN STAUFFER: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you write that Douglass' love for photography has really been - I don't know - ignored. You know, why is it that you think we never really focused on that before?

STAUFFER: I think one answer is that people see Douglass as a political activist, as a reformer. He's well known as one of the leading abolitionists of the day. And too few people have seen the way in which he saw his political reform vision as being intimately connected to his understanding of art, particularly photography.

MARTIN: So these were not just taken for fun.

STAUFFER: That's right. So he spells out in four speeches - essays - that he gives why photography is so important in ending slavery and racism and achieving civil rights. And he believed in the camera's truth value - that even in the hands of a racist white, the camera will not lie. Thus, it was a wonderful critique or counter to the proliferation of racist caricatures, particularly in blackface minstrelsy.

MARTIN: How much control did he have over the way he was portrayed in these photographs? I mean, was it his choice never to smile, or was that the convention of the time?

STAUFFER: Yes, yes. It wasn't necessarily a convention, but Douglass specifically - in print, he said that he did not want - he did not want to be portrayed as a happy slave. The smiling black was to play into the racist caricature. And his cause of ending slavery and ending racism had the gravity that required a stern look. And so he tended to confront the viewer, look directly into the camera. And so it was a confrontational pose that countered what most photographic manuals instructed the photographer - to position the sitter in a visionary gaze so that you looked up or beyond the camera, looking far away.

He was very self-conscious and sensitive of his visual image, even as a slave in the early 1840s. He describes feeling down in the mouth and looking in a mirror and perceiving himself as ugly, which is really fascinating. And he was very self-conscious of how he presented himself both as - in a photograph, as a speaker, as a writer. The public persona - the look of the public persona was crucial to him because he wanted to enter into the public sphere with an equal voice with an equal image and have the same rights as any other citizen.

MARTIN: You wrote this book along with your co-authors, Zoe Trod and Celeste-Marie Bernier. How did this book come about? How did you come to think of these photographs in this way?

STAUFFER: As a grad student, I was fascinated by Douglass' love of photography, and I started collecting photographs of Douglass. I didn't have - I couldn't afford to actually buy the photographs, but collecting digital images of him or photographs of photographs of him. I said, what I would love to do is to try to exhaust the archives, find out how many photographs Frederick Douglass actually sat for. He may be the most photographed American in the 19th century, which he was, and that's what led to the book. It was a wonderful collaboration. And since the book has come out, we've discovered four new photographs that are not in the present book. They will be in the revised edition, but it's really extraordinary.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That was John Stauffer, professor of English and African-American studies at Harvard University. He's one of the co-authors of the book "Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography Of The 19th Century's Most Photographed American." Professor Stauffer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STAUFFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.