Monday, March 25, 2019

Booknotes: Exposing Slavery

New Arrival:
Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America by Matthew Fox-Amato (Oxford UP, 2019).

Given how deeply entwined slavery was with American society as a whole, it's not surprising to learn that photographs of slaves started to appear soon after the technology became widely available in the country. "Within a few years of the introduction of photography into the United States in 1839, slaveholders had already begun commissioning photographic portraits of their slaves. Ex-slaves-turned-abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass had come to see how sitting for a portrait could help them project humanity and dignity amidst northern racism. In the first decade of the medium, enslaved people had begun entering southern daguerreotype studios of their own volition, posing for cameras, and leaving with visual treasures they could keep in their pockets. And, as the Civil War raged, Union soldiers would orchestrate pictures with fugitive slaves that envisioned racial hierarchy as slavery fell. 

In these ways and others, from the earliest days of the medium to the first moments of emancipation, photography powerfully influenced how bondage and freedom were documented, imagined, and contested. By 1865, it would be difficult for many Americans to look back upon slavery and its fall without thinking of a photograph." You could say that about a lot of Civil War topics.

Matthew Fox-Amato's Exposing Slavery "explores how photography altered and was, in turn, shaped by conflicts over human bondage. Drawing on an original source base that includes hundreds of unpublished and little-studied photographs of slaves, ex-slaves, free American Americans, and abolitionists as well as written archival materials, it puts visual culture at the center of understanding the experience of late slavery. It assesses how photography helped southerners to defend slavery, enslaved people to shape their social ties, abolitionists to strengthen their movement, and soldiers to pictorially enact interracial society during the Civil War. With diverse goals, these peoples transformed photography from a scientific curiosity into a political tool over only a few decades."

As one would hope for and expect, the volume is heavily illustrated with crisp reproductions of contemporary photographs and images. The thick, glossy paper stock helps readers see the photos to their best effect and gives the comparatively slim book a surprising physical heft to boot.

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