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chapter two Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photography, and the Black Body It is singular what a peculiar in›uence is possessed by the eye of a well-painted miniature or portrait. —It has a sort of magnetism. We have miniatures in our possession, which we have often held, and gazed upon the eyes in them for the half-hour! An electric chain seems to vibrate, as it were, between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner’s cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality. —Walt Whitman, on the daguerreotype, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 July 1846 In March 1850, seven black individuals, who dwelled in Columbia, South Carolina, were brought to the portrait studio of daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy. Like so many of Zealy’s other clients, Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty were there to have their pictures taken—and, as a result , to be captured for time immemorial by the new photography process that many people, including poet Walt Whitman, had identi‹ed as a form of painting at its most advanced state. Although the lack of historical records prevents us from knowing whether all seven arrived at once or over several days, Zealy’s photographs evidence their presence and offer a limited glimpse at their movements within his studio. The captives, one at a time, sat on a wooden chair provided by the photographer, faced his camera, and remained still for upwards of a minute until their likenesses were recorded on the daguerreotypes’ polished, silver-surfaced plates. Subsequently, they stood before the camera and then turned to the (left) side in order to present the daguerreotype machine with their pro‹les.1 After turning yet again, they moved out of the camera’s sight and disappeared from history. In the early images, the seated captives’ posture resembles that of other subjects who appear in mid-nineteenth-century daguerreotypes. With 26 shoulders square and head raised and level, they sit on a high-backed chair (equipped with an iron headrest). Their physical comportment bears a striking similarity to that of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Liberian president Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had their portraits taken by this relatively new photographic method in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The differences between the two sets of photographs emerge in terms of clothing. Whereas Douglass and Roberts appear well dressed—if not, dressed up—for the portrait session, Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty appear in the opposite manner. They are dressed down and, literally, undressed. In their initial pictures, they sit with their shirts either pulled down to their waist or entirely removed. Regardless of gender, they appear bare-chested before the camera. In the latter images, they stand, completely naked. Their clothing, either bunched up or folded neatly on the ground (or chair) occupies the space off-frame along with the photographer and, perhaps, the other captives, who may have watched the photography session take place and awaited their turn before the camera. It is the nudity of the ‹ve men and two women in Zealy’s daguerreotypes combined with the manner of their pose and the knowledge that the daguerreotype process was most popular in the early to middle nineteenth century that helps the viewer of the photographs to realize that Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty are black captives who were compelled to appear before Zealy and his camera .2 Their presence in the picture reveals their condition of servitude and bondage. In this chapter, I study the photographs of Joseph Zealy, Richard Roberts, and Walker Evans. Each photographer captured a moment in the lives of their subjects and, in so doing, invite us, the viewers of their images, to witness the phenomenal experiences of the men and women who stood (or sat) before them. Zealy introduces us to black captives who labored on plantations in Columbia, South Carolina. Roberts presents black residents of the same city in the 1920s. Evans renders black bodies visible within the iconography and critical memory of the Great Depression. Although all photographic technology can freeze time, the pictures addressed here differ from most others in that their subjects actively perform stillness, an enactment of arrest that resonates with their daily, lived embodied experiences. I contend that a consideration of the stillness of black bodies within photography offers insight into the experience of the Middle Passage, the transatlantic crossing of black captives, and an opportunity...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780472027095
Related ISBN
9780472051113
MARC Record
OCLC
794700529
Pages
272
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-21
Language
English
Open Access
No
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