- Slave Photographs in Lincoln
photography, slavery, visual rhetoric
In interviews, Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner said that he experienced a breakthrough during the writing process when he realized that the story of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is largely a story about white men who had no personal experience of slavery.1 In light of this realization, and the filmmakers’ related choice not to include slaves themselves as a part of the story, the film’s use of slave photographs is worth exploring. By depicting young Tad Lincoln and President Lincoln consuming photographs of slaves, the filmmakers use photography to put characters in visual relation to slavery and invite reflection on photography’s capacity to fuel the desire to look. Furthermore, the slave photographs erupt into the story at moments when the filmmakers want to emphasize how timely political calculation needs to be balanced with moral imperative.
Slave photographs appear or are discussed three times in the film, each time involving Lincoln’s interactions with his youngest son, Tad. The film explains that the glass plates were loaned to the Lincolns by Alexander Gardner, a well-known photographer in Washington, D.C. whose real-life gallery Lincoln frequented while president.2 While the authenticity of this specific story is doubtful—historian of Lincoln iconography Harold Holzer points out that Gardner would never “have sent one-of-a-kind, fragile plates to the rambunctious little ‘sprite’ of the White House”—the circulation of slave images in the form of cartes de visite, or paper photographs printed on card stock, was common during a period when photographs of all kinds [End Page 129] were easily produced and readily available for home and public consumption.3 Former slaves and current public figures such as Sojourner Truth sold their photographic likenesses to raise money to support themselves and their causes, and antislavery activists’ images of slave children appeared in popular outlets such as Harper’s Weekly and were sold to fund the establishment of schools for freedmen in the South.4
In Lincoln, we first see the slave photographs early in the film, when Lincoln enters his office to find that Tad has fallen asleep on the floor.5 As he kneels down, Lincoln’s eye is drawn to a wooden box and some large glass plates scattered near it. Lincoln picks up one, then another, holding each up to the flickering firelight (one suspects the filmmakers’ choice to feature historically inaccurate glass plates was tied to how nicely they work with the film’s dark, shadowy, nineteenth-century mise-en-scène). The first photograph, of a boy, is labeled “Slave Child, Age 12, $600”; the second features two younger boys and is labeled “Two Young Boys, $700.” Lincoln studies each briefly, then sets them aside to deal with his sleeping son.
The next time the photographs appear is not visually but as a topic of urgent conversation between Lincoln and his son. Tad interrupts a meeting between his father and Secretary of State William Seward to complain: “Tom Pendel took away the glass plates of slaves Mr. Gardner sent over because Tom says Mama says they’re too distressing.”6 When Lincoln reminds the boy that they gave him nightmares, the child exclaims, “I’ll have worse nightmares if you don’t let me look at the plates again!”
The photographs clearly were not withheld from the boy for long, because they make one more appearance in the narrative. The scene is Lincoln’s bedroom, where his valet, William Slade, is helping the president dress for a White House reception. In the midst of this activity Tad sits on the bed, holding a lit candle to illuminate glass plates of adult slaves. The first image features a man with his shirtless back exposed to the viewer. Commonly known as “The Scourged Back” and circulated by abolitionists in the United States and abroad, the photograph dramatically depicts severe scarring on the back of a fugitive slave named Gordon, who in early 1863 escaped to the Union Army near New Orleans. The image initially circulated in print in Harper’s Weekly as part of a triptych of engravings describing Gordon...