In 1976 staff at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology discovered a cache of disturbing daguerreotypes: striking pictures of enslaved people from South Carolina stripped naked or near naked, sometime around 1850, and made to pose for a camera. These pictures were apparently very early examples of a genre we would recognize today as ethnographic photographs, images meant to turn individuals into racial or ethnic types. Cryptic labels left a few clues about the people in the pictures—the first names of individuals, a mention of African origins—and to the pictures' makers—Columbia, South Carolina, daguerreotypist Joseph Thomas Zealy and Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. Naturalist Agassiz had the pictures made, thinking they would somehow confirm his belief that men of different races actually represented different species of humanity.
Molly Rogers is not the first writer to be struck by these pictures, nor the first to wrestle with the mix of fascination and horror they inspire. Peabody Museum staff and art historians have written about them. Cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg struggled to account for them in his Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans (New York, 1990). Rogers set out to discover all she could about the daguerreotypes and the men (and they were men) who thought it was a good idea to take these pictures. Who are the people in the photographs? Who took the pictures? Where? Why? And perhaps most challenging, how can we look at these pictures—lavishly reproduced in the book—without taking the part of the slaveholders who owned these people and the slaveholders' allies who posed them for the daguerreotypist? [End Page 543]
Rogers, a short-story writer, essayist, and playwright, tries to escape the awful condescension of the pictures by voicing inner lives and visceral experiences for the people made to pose. Although the book's title appeals to sympathy, recalling the tears one Peabody curator thought she saw in the woman called Delia's unfocused eyes, Rogers is after something more, asking us to believe that the book has helped make the people in the photographs "a little more real than [they] would be otherwise" (xxii). With what little is known of the people in the pictures, Rogers constructs fragments of what they might have seen, felt, touched, smelled, or heard. These sensual descriptions of the sun's heat magnified by a skylight or the sharp smell of the photographer's chemicals, for example, appear in italics beside the photographs. A reader will have to decide whether these efforts to voice experiences make the figures in the pictures more than the "objects" they appeared to the photographer and the scientist. Does Rogers's evocative prose in fact absolve us from complicity in the "repressive acts" of those who made these pictures (xxii)?
Between the unusual italicized sections on the photographs, the book unfolds in a manner more conventional for historians. Rogers begins as a playwright might with a cast of characters and provides short biographies of the naturalists, slaveholders, abolitionists, and enslaved people who appear in the book. Many in the cast will be familiar to those who have worked through the convoluted arguments of the American school of ethnology, and Rogers provides a vivid rendering of the development of the polygenist notion that each race was the product of a distinct act of creation.
Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz was the brain behind the pictures. He was a warm-hearted, enthusiastic man, whose intellectual curiosity and scholarly generosity fit the cultural mood of the nation. But he arrived in the United States in the mid 1840s, just when the booming cotton market and pressure from militant abolitionists pushed questions about race to the top of the public mind. For all his association with Europe's top naturalists and his extensive learning about fossil fishes, Agassiz was a provincial man, and he balked at America's mixed-race world. He wrote to his mother from a Philadelphia hotel, describing his horror at being served...