- Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America by Matthew Fox-Amato
In this book, Fox-Amato argues that photography played a significant role in the history of slavery, abolition, and the Civil War. He focuses on the daguerreotype, pioneered by Louis Daguerre in 1839, whereupon the technology spread quickly to all parts of the United States. Readers will encounter many photographs familiar to scholars, such as images of the Manigault slaves from South Carolina, and others rarely seen before in print. Fox-Amato discusses how daguerrotypes were made, advertised, exhibited, and marketed, as well as the cultural messages that they conveyed. The book is based on research in manuscripts, printed sources, and the images themselves. The resulting work is clearly written, perceptive, thoughtful, and enjoyable to read.
Fox-Amato examines bondage in the South but does not treat slavery in the North, which persisted in some states into the age of the daguerreotype. He concentrates on photographs of Southern slaveowners and slaves, some of them whites with house slaves; many of these house slaves were female. In those images, everyone is well-dressed, seated together, and posed to confirm racial hierarchies; slaves appear to be devoted to their owners. Slaveholders deployed these visuals to portray bondage as familial and personal, not cruel and harsh. Daguerrotypes therefore served a political function in the pro-slavery argument in the antebellum era.
The author has made some surprising discoveries about slaves who had the money and opportunity to buy their own daguerrotypes, with [End Page 613] no interference from whites. These individuals, who seem to have been few in number, managed to utilize photography to forge a strong sense of personhood. Fox-Amato also reveals new information about itinerant daguerrotypists who created thousands of images as they traveled, selling them at cheap prices. He notes how abolitionists exchanged photographs of activists both to build community within their ranks and refute prejudice in the country at large. Frederick Douglass, the subject of more than 160 images, deliberately presented a serious, bourgeois demeanor to counter bigoted stereotypes of African Americans.
When the Union blockade halted imports during the Civil War, it also undermined Confederate photography, but daguerrotypists visited Union army camps and produced many images. Anti-slavery figures circulated the now-famous photograph of the fugitive Gordon (also known as Peter) with a scarred back, thus illuminating, as only images could, the abuses of bondage. The military camps, depicted as "haphazard, biracial communities" (161), contained white troops who had photographs taken with a variety of motives. Because some of them were against slavery and others not, some of the images challenged white supremacy (showing dignified black troops in uniform) whereas others upheld it (blacks kneeling or serving whites). Black soldiers posed for their photographs holding weapons or standing before a U.S. flag, communicating their dedication to the federal cause.
For all its merits, Exposing Slavery raises some questions about methodology and historiography. Fox-Amato often describes photographs as material objects, but he neglects influential work on material culture by historians and specialists in anthropology and archaeology. Some of the evidence supports the theory of object agency advanced by Latour, but Fox-Amato does not refer to that concept.1 The volume would have benefited from wider reading about the history of Southern slavery, such as Boster's important book on disabled slaves, including the Manigault slaves, and Weiner's excellent monograph on slavery and gender.2 Melish and Gigantino have published superb books about Northern slavery that might have shed some light on whether whites and blacks made the same use of daguerrotypes as their counterparts in the South.3 This book nevertheless provides fresh perspectives on slavery and photography, and historians will learn a great deal from reading it. [End Page 614]
1. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (New York, 2005).
2. Dea H. Boster, African American Slavery and Disability...