Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America

It should be certain that there are a number of concepts in this book which most people tend not to consider when it comes to the “peculiar institution”. The advent of modern photography in America in the 1840s not only caused a sensation but also provided the means for many on both sides of the proverbial color line to use the technology as family memento, keepsake and abolitionist propaganda and, primarily for Southerners but Northern soldiers too, a symbolic or even metaphoric demonstration or exhibition of the racial divide and ongoing white supremacy through the end of the war in 1865.

In four relatively lengthy chapters, this book describes how the technology was employed to accomplish all of these and led to its birth and use in “modern visual politics” in this country to disseminate an individual, group or organization’s viewpoint on an important issue, even when it may have been intended solely as the aforementioned keepsake.

These chapters also include considerable information on early photographic formats such as daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes and the carte de visite form as well many photographers, black and white, who set up shop across the country in the 1840s and 1850s to cater to the demand for “likenesses.”

For Southern slaveowners, photography was a double-edged sword as it turned out. They were somewhat sowing the seeds of their own destruction by having their slaves, largely house servants, photographed in poses demonstrating their happiness and loyalty and their subservience to the expected and accepted racial norms even as they could be used to show personhood and humanity in the slave subject’s mind. Portraits of their slaves also provided a means of identifying their “property” through newspaper notices and advertisements when the subject fled from the master’s control.

For the enslaved, it could be both a keepsake of a loved one who might have been sold elsewhere and could be used as visual information when later trying to reconnect with that loved one as well as the personal confirmation that one was a person, rejecting commodification as chattel.

Abolitionists ultimately recognized the possibilities and adapted the technology in their ongoing campaign to agitate for the demise of the hated institution. Photographs could be used to identify trusted fellow members of the movement, strengthen political ties and organizational networks and show the greater public, employing slave photographs, the abuses and evils of slavery from beatings, whippings and other punishments.

For Northern photographers and soldiers, photography was a mixed bag. Although many of their photographs continued the at least symbolic representation of blacks as subservient, many also exhibited and stressed black manhood, personhood and patriotism, particularly those of United States Colored Troops. However, it was mostly a matter of enabling northern whites to confirm themselves as liberators all while continuing to deny real equality and maintaining their own personalized concept of postwar racial hierarchy.

Perhaps inevitably, even postwar photography influenced visual politics in America. Blacks continued to use it to show their newly attained middle class status, dignity, worth, individuality and personhood all while damning ongoing white supremacy and racism that was enforced and confirmed, through the 1880s advent of the Kodak camera, by images of brutal lynchings during the Jim Crow era.

In presenting his thesis, author Matthew Fox-Amato obviously includes many contemporary photographs, illustrations and lithographs interspersed throughout the text. Be forewarned, however. There are photographs that didn’t seem to have transferred very well, resolution-wise, to the printed page. They are dark, very small or may not have detail immediately discernible to the naked eye. Consequently, it is recommended, even for those photographs without such shortcomings, to have a magnifying glass at hand in order to confirm facts and details that the author references in the text.

Although there is no index, strangely, the bibliography is extensive and shows considerable research in many archives and collections, contemporary newspapers and other written materials.

Not only did photography shape how slavery and the conflicts over it was viewed but it also altered the political landscape. It was used to defend the institution by Southerners, attack it by abolitionists, emphasize enslaved self-worth, family and social ties and by soldiers to attempt to determine the postwar basis and type of interracial society following slavery’s destruction.

The text and photographs complement each other to provide a thought-provoking story which has led to our present-day news video sound bites and social media platforms in the realm of American visual politics.

Title: Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America

Author: Matthew Fox-Amato

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 360

Price: $39.95