Session of the Week: Slavery, Photography, and the Politics of Perception

In an effort to highlight the diverse range of scholarship at the upcoming annual meeting, we’re highlighting different sessions on the blog each week.

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Chair: John W. Stauffer, Harvard University
Comment: John W. Stauffer, Harvard University

This panel explores the historical relation between photography and slavery in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century. While historians of slavery and emancipation once largely overlooked visual sources, recent scholarship has raised vital questions about the role of photography in shaping American perceptions and memories of slavery. Although these scholars have offered important insights into the links between photographs of the enslaved and the politics of race and abolition, they have largely restricted our view on the exchange to one dimension: the camera inscribes slavery into a passive object of representation.

We seek to broaden our view by considering the impact slavery itself exercised on the practices of photographic image-making and the politics of visual perception.  How did photographs ranging from unique portraits of antebellum slaves to turn-of-the-century stereographs of former slave sites shape perceptions of violence and humanity?  How did they influence the racial politics of their moments – as private visions and as mass-reproduced consumer objects?  How did they legitimate ideologies of race and freedom in a consumer society and political culture increasingly mediated by images?  Lastly, how did slavery shape photography as a political tool and as a crucial medium for “seeing” history?

In particular, we examine the changing aesthetics and uses of photographic representations during key turns in the history of slavery and its aftermath.  Matthew Amato’s paper traces how photography became a weapon for asserting intimate forms of power in the antebellum South.  Meanwhile, Zoe Trodd addresses the question of how the most famous ex-slave in the United States – Frederick Douglass – seized upon photography as a tool for reform.  Lastly, Chris Dingwall examines how photographs of slavery and its ruins continued to shape the intellectual practices of American historians well into the twentieth century.  Through these papers, we aim to generate a broader dialogue about how photography influenced racial politics during and after bondage.  But we will also shed new light on how various historical actors – including slaves, masters, slaves-turned-abolitionists, and historians – charged and challenged the formation of photography as a crucial political and epistemological tool.  This panel should appeal to scholars of slavery and emancipation, of African-American history, and of visual-culture history.

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