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“Picturing Frederick Douglass”: A lecture

Photo credit: Erika DiPasquale

Madeline St. John, News Editor

February 15th, 2017

At a recent Black History Month event, Donald Trump stated, amidst other comments, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Trump’s use of present tense suggests a possible ignorance of who Douglass was, and of the fact that he has been deceased for many years. A presenter at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore pointed this out in her introduction to the lecture Picturing Frederick Douglass. The lecture, on Saturday February 4th, was attended by about a classroom-full of Goucher students, and focused on the intertwining histories of Frederick Douglass and photography.  The presenter, John Stauffer, Ph.D., Harvard University used a powerpoint of photos of Douglass to punctuate his points.

“Douglass was in love with photography,” said Stauffer. “There were more photos of him than any other American of the 19th century. He was the public face of America.”

Stauffer began his lecture with a bit of historical background on photography in the 19th century, describing the different types of prints and how they were taken. He passed around examples. During that time period, Stauffer explained, it was believed that photo portraits were a “likeness” of someone and contained a part of their “body and soul.”

Douglass was a strong believer in the power of photography. He saw it as crucial in the fight against slavery and for civil rights. Anyone could be photographed and anyone could be a photographer–all it required was “a manual, some chemicals, and about 3-6 months of experimentation,” said Stauffer. Photography was incredibly democratizing and equalizing, and there were hundreds of female and African-American photographers. The photo gallery, where folks came to have their photo taken or look at others, was, in Stauffer’s words, a “model interracial space.”

For Douglass, photography was also a way of showing the humanity of African Americans. “’We cannot trust white artists,’” he said, because he believed that somewhere between reality and the strokes on the canvas, their work became a lie. Photography, on the other hand, held the truth. As well as truth, photography also captured its subjects’ “fundamental humanity,” and their human desire to create liknesses of themselves in their world.

In his own portraits, several patterns emerge. Douglass used a “signature pose,” in which he stared at the viewer with a “defiant” gaze. He was always “immaculately dressed” and, although they were common at the time, he used few props, wishing to keep the emphasis on himself, the subject. In a number of portraits, he clenches his hands, like a boxer, and Stauffer described his appearance as “majestic in his wrath.”

Stauffer highlighted Douglass’ relationship with Abraham Lincoln, pointing out his presence in a photograph of Lincoln’s second inauguration.

At the end of his presentation, Stauffer showed photographs of modern representations of Douglass, highlighting how influential he continues to be today. Perhaps President Trump was not so far from the truth, he suggested, in using the present tense to describe Douglass’ influence in the present day.

After the presentation, an audience member stood up, as if to ask a question. “I just want to make a comment,” he said, “that the next time you show that picture of [Lincoln’s] inauguration, you should point out that there was a much bigger crowd then, than there was a week ago [at Trump’s inauguration].” The audience responded positively to this comment, as they had to comments made by Stauffer throughout the lecture that connected Douglass’ fight for rights with the current political situation and modern struggles, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

This event was promoted by History Professor Matthew Hale, and a bus transported students between Goucher and the event.

Future Black History Month events at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore include a Black Memorobelia and Fine Arts and Craft Show, on Sat., Feb. 11th, and an open house on Sat., Feb. 25th. For more information about upcoming events, visit

Other participating Baltimore Black History Month museums and organizations include the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Baltimore Visitor’s Center. For more details on Black History Month events in the Baltimore area, check out or

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