Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the 19th Century's Most Photographed American

Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the 19th Century's Most Photographed American

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John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier; Epilogue by Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Afterword by Kenneth B. Morris

A landmark and collectible volume—beautifully produced in duotone—that canonizes Frederick Douglass through historic photography.


Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in 19th-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age. Now, as a result of the groundbreaking research of John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Douglass emerges as a leading pioneer in photography, both as a stately subject and as a prescient theorist who believed in the explosive social power of what was then just a nascent art form.


At last, his portraits have been collected into a single volume, giving us an incomparable visual biography of a man whose prophetic vision and creative genius knew no bounds. Chronologically arranged and generously captioned, from the first picture taken in around 1841 to the last in 1895, each of the images—many published here for the first time—emphasizes Douglass's evolution as a man, artist, and leader. Also included are other representations of Douglass during his lifetime and after—such as paintings, statues, and satirical cartoons—as well as Douglass’s own writings on visual aesthetics, which have never before been transcribed from his own handwritten drafts.


The comprehensive introduction by the authors along with headnotes for each section, an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and an afterword by Kenneth B. Morris Jr.—a direct Douglass descendent—provide the definitive examination of Douglass's intellectual, philosophical, and political relationships to aesthetics. Taken together, this landmark work canonizes Frederick Douglass through a form he appreciated the most: photography.

  • Hardcover
  • 9.4 x 12.4 inches
  • 320 pages
  • Published: 2015

Editorial Reviews

“These images don’t change your mind; they smash through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been taught to see.” —David Brooks, New York Times

“Beautifully crafted and contextualized.... the extant photographs illuminate American history and memory.” —The Washington Post

Picturing Frederick Douglass marries all of my present interests: legacies of slavery; beautiful images of a beautiful man; and the first theory of photography as a democratic medium capable of social change. Stunningly original and elegantly written and designed, it will inspire anyone interested in the links between the visual and the verbal.” —Sally Mann, author of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

“Douglass emerges here out of photographic technology's earliest years, with majestic beauty, and through the power of his own self-creations. The book is the result of intrepid research and brilliant analysis; it charts Douglass's life visually, allowing him to look back at us wryly, wistfully, wrathfully.” —David W. Blight, Yale University, and author of Frederick Douglass: A Life

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