In 2015 I embarked on a journey to highlight artists of color during Black History Month and I am happy to bring this important feature back to Culture Shock Art. Instead of the longer theoretical essays I currently explore on TONDI, this February I will explore one artist, artistic medium or art movement each day during February. Both 2015 and 2016 “challenges” kicked off with the 2/1 Google Doodle, but in this post I want to share an interesting, important fact about Frederick Douglass.
The legendary activist, abolitionist and writer was an avid fan of photography and he embraced early forms of the process as a potent vehicle to shape visual messages. He not only used early photography to shape his personal brand, he also saw the value of the medium to redeem, redefine and destroy stereotypes. Douglass was keenly aware of the damaging psychological scars left by exagerated caricatures prevalent in illustrations of African Americans. He felt that photography had the power to democratize and “offered a ‘right vision’ which might undermine slavery”.
“A Very pleasing feature of our pictorial relations is the very easy terms upon which all may enjoy them. The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly, the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of civilization, such pictures, are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.” Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress”, 1863.
Frederick Douglass immediately embraced early Daguerrotypes as self portraits and used them as important calling cards that helped manage his public image. This was a key strategic technique that complimented his visibility and notoriety for his work in the abolitionist movement.
For more on rare Daguerrotypes of Frederick Douglass, check out this video by the University of Rochester.
The Artist a Day Challenge celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.