Daguerreotypes of Black Slaves, 1850
à taken from: Alan Trachtenberg: Reading American Photographs. Images as History – Matthew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990, 55.
à J.T. Zealy as photographer, ordered by Louis Agassiz and Dr. Robert W. Gibbes
“The Zealy pictures present what Brady in the same year chose not to see and show: the faces and bodies of black slaves.” (53)
“He wanted firsthand evidence of anatomical uniqueness, and also to see if these distinct traits would survive in American-born offspring. […] Zealy’s pictures would supplement his anthropometric evidence with visible proof of ‘natural’ difference in size of limbs and configuration of muscles, establishing once and for all that blacks and whites did not derive ‘from a common center.’” (53)
à zoological classification rather than portraits, classification through physical features as slaves were dehumanized
àtraits of character and human features were denied
“However, the persons portrayed here are standing naked: not ‘representative’ in Brady’s sense of an imagined and desired America, but examples of a ‘type’ – a type, moreover, of complete otherness. It is difficult to view these images now without a sense of outrage at the indecency of the poses and the system of bondage they reflect – the absolute power of masters over the bodies of their slaves.” (54)
à acc. To T these portraits “possess a power of communication that reveals more than most conventional portraits” (54)
à while in 1850 these portraits were read simply as a categorization, the social construct around slave, African Americans and other ethnicities now forces the spectator’s view on the people behind these pictures. They become “types” of their time still, but the spectator will project his knowledge on slavery on these four faces, will look at them differently now that slavery has been marked as the inhuman, disgusting practice it really was. Back then the gaze upon these images probably was of a more neutral curiosity, a pseudo-scientific view upon “the other.”
Gaze: “The subject’s awareness of being in the presence of a spectator who shares his space and ‘narrative time’ opens a wedge between mask and self, persona and person – between self-presentation and self-awareness. This acutely strained double awareness signals back to us our own presence as spectators, ‘the pressure of our own gaze upon the portrait subject.’” (54)
àsee Cindy Sherman who actively exposes the spectator more than she exposes herself in her pinup series “This is how you look at me, what you expect me doing in this pose, you make me pose this way…”
“Without a public mask to mediate their encounter with the lens, the eyes of the enslaved Africans can only reveal the depths of their being – for, as naked slaves, they are permitted no social persona.” (55)
à no social setting, poses, accessories (=none) and unmoved stare into the camera disclose a non-social; non-cultivated in the sense of a non-artificial core (problematic conception of self, but kind of fits here)
“We know how to view conventional portraits – but to gaze upon naked bodies, male and female, of persons dispossessed of themselves, is another matter.” (55)
à furthermore, the set of readable items changes over time. Then, it was clearly and unambiguously read as a matter of a “type”, muscles, face and body shape were studied. Now, however, these pictures are studied as a form of social criticism. The bodies of the slaves are now synecdoches for slavery and everything it stood for. While Brady decides to document the heroic characters of that time, Zealy (without questioning his job probably) documents the other end of the food chain upon which the heros depend so much.
“violat[ion of] civilized decorum” entirely stripped, even of the right of covering oneself
“Their gaze in our eyes, we can say, frees them. And frees the viewer as well.” (60)
àpolemic, but: Through their gaze, T. argues, it becomes impossible to deny their humanness, their being like *we* are, their personality. The viewer then is freed through recognition of self and stripped of social misrepresentation, seeing oneself as equal to them (68) and also identifying with movements against slavery.
à the power of a portrait is that it enables us to look into faces and identify with them, portraits pledge for us to develop empathy. A spectator of portraits will automatically pose questions as to who can be seen on that portrait, what kind of person he or she might have been, where he/she has come from and where he/she has gone after that photo was taken. We are used to tell history by telling the stories of people, by pinning history on VIP’s, certain elites. One approach to reverse that writing of a “master narrative” into a writing of the people has been made by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
“For the image registers not simply a likeness to be remembered (a pen or bush might have accomplished as much) but the irrefutability of a life before a lens. While a painting represents an artist’s perception, bias, and skill, the daguerreotype reproduces what appeared before a lens at a particular moment and never again – its appearance is simultaneous with its disappearance, its death.” (50)
à “imperious sign” of future death (Barthes)