- Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby
For many scholars of nineteenth-century American history and visual culture, photographic portraits of leading black abolitionists are iconic and meaningful. Both Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth used the camera strategically and thoughtfully. Their images, like their published words, allowed for the sentiments presented in public speeches to reverberate beyond the bounds of the lecture hall, taking their place in the private spaces of potential allies and supporters. This is particularly true for cartes-de-visite (or CDVs), small photographs mounted on cards that were inexpensively printed and could be sent through the mail. After their [End Page 399] introduction in the United States in the late 1850s, CDVs of loved ones and public figures were so prevalent that Horace Greeley dubbed them “the greenbacks of civilization.”
Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance, by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, a scholar of art history whose earlier works focus on painting and architecture in colonial Euro-American contexts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive look at the photographs Truth had made, possibly as early as 1850, and nearly until her death in 1883. While driven by research and critical thought, the volume is directed toward a broad readership. Sizeable, well-illustrated, and written in accessible prose, it might sit on a modern coffee table much as the Victorian albums containing pictures of Truth might have resided in a middle-class parlor 150 years ago. And, like an album, the greatest pleasure offered by this volume lies in its presentation of so many portraits of its subject, many of which have not previously been published. Grigsby has taken care to not only locate photographs of Truth but also to accurately date them, allowing her to organize the book around clearly defined phases in Truth’s engagement with self-representation. She claims “Truth deployed photography to make arguments.”
Grigsby argues that this body of work—comprising at least twenty-eight separate pictures made over the course of perhaps fourteen sessions with what seem to be six different photographers, and always undertaken with the goal of securing financial support—changes according to the times. Truth’s approach to portraiture is particularly important according to this author because Truth did not have access to the same range of means to assert her authority and build alliances as did the literate public figures of her time. Instead, she embraced an up-to-date technology whose inherent indexicality communicated a sense of her identity that might otherwise have been marked by a signature. As Grigsby shows, over time, Truth became increasingly comfortable and skilled at asserting a sense of self-possession through self-portraiture.
The book is divided into three chronological sections, each of which is composed of several chapters. At the beginning of her relationship with photography, which coincided with the publication of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a memoir recorded by abolitionist Olive Gilbert, Truth’s visible discomfort speaks to the reality that her public appearances at the time were frequently met with hostility, and that even allies such as Harriet Beecher Stowe employed pejorative stereotypes when discussing her. During the Civil War, several CDVs were made that linked the sitter with the Union cause through the use of props that created solidarity with viewers, including a portrait of a relative in uniform (her grandson, James Caldwell) and a piece of knitting (linked not only to contemporaneous notions of virtuous domesticity, but also to women’s contributions to the war effort). Another shift occurred in 1864, when the former slave began copyrighting photographs to claim ownership of her own image. During Truth’s later years, the photographs took on a new sense of dignity that ironically communicated a diminishing commitment to using photography as a “tool of war.” As Grigsby demonstrates, Truth collected few if any photographs herself, treasuring instead a collection of signatures and a scrapbook full of clippings; the fact that the photographs made at the end of her life are the most conventional reinforces the...