American photography's role in shaping nineteenth-century attitudes around slavery has been explored in a range of academic disciplines, including art history, American studies, African American studies, women's and gender studies, and literary studies. The photograph has been studied as a valuable discursive object from which we can glean information about how enslaved black people were viewed by the state, violated at the hands of slave-owning families, and mobilized for consensus purposes by Northern abolitionists prior to the Civil War. Ex-slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman realized the political stakes of image-making in the production, circulation, and formation of more liberating portraits of black identity. Provided that nineteenth-century photography illuminates so clearly the politics at play in both the defense of and protest against the United States slave economy, its absence in American historical scholarship is particularly curious.
Matthew Fox-Amato works to address this gap in Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America, which not only historicizes the rise of the daguerreotype in the US during American slavery, but takes on the task of telling a more expansive account of nineteenth-century photographic culture in the US. This account argues that the South played a more active role in the production of slave photography than previously articulated in nineteenth-century scholarship on US photographic culture. Through extensive archival research, Fox-Amato pieces together, for instance, how central daguerreotypes were for slaveholders, who would commission family portrait-style images of their slaves. These commissioned photographs reveal the paradoxical perception of slaves by their masters, who viewed them as property yet “framed” them as well-treated humans through the camera. As Fox-Amato argues, the daguerreotype became an important tool for the South in justifying its slave-based economy, and the daguerreotype's intimate size, affordability, and portability served a critical role in its popularity and utility throughout the North and the South.
Although Fox-Amato's book would be categorized as a historical account of nineteenth-century picture-making, it sits at the juncture of art history, material culture, visual culture, and history. With that being said, Fox-Amato's introduction in Exposing Slavery gives the impression that little work has been done in scholarship on the visual politics of nineteenth-century slave photography; for instance, Fox-Amato states that his book “recast[s] the first twenty-five years of American photography as a story of social and political conflict over bondage” (11). If Fox-Amato explicitly said that his book was making a specific intervention in historical scholarship, this argument could go unchallenged. But because of the grandness of the author's claim, a criticism is warranted. I would argue that the politics of citation becomes key in acknowledging the work that has already been done across disciplines by the likes of Huey Copeland, Barbara Krauthamer, Sarah Lewis, Richard Powell, Leigh Raiford, and Deborah Willis in theorizing photography as a historical site of contestation over black freedom in the nineteenth century. The idea of photography as being key in the formation of both black identity and American national identity is certainly not new, yet Fox-Amato does not make this explicit.
Fox-Amato rightfully argues, however, that attention to nineteenth-century slave photography has largely been focused on frequently researched and referenced archival materials, most notably Northern abolitionist photography, and the portraits commissioned by Louis Agassiz and taken by Joseph T. Zealy in 1850 of enslaved African Americans in Columbia, South Carolina. By going beyond these archives, Fox-Amato carries out critical work in decentering the North and revealing a more robust, active network of photographic production and consumption that included southern cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; and Saint Louis, Missouri. Fox-Amato portrays these port cities as important nodes in an economy of image-making and image exchange, both of which served critical roles in helping to produce certain images of enslaved black people that legitimized the South's agricultural, slave-based economy. As Fox-Amato argues, it was “everyday actors”—from slave masters to Civil War soldiers—who played a role in this visual contestation over the black body, a contestation that undergirded, in the author's words, “modern political culture” (12–13).
Exposing Slavery is divided into four chapters: “Policing Personhood,” “Enduring Images,” “Realizing Abolition,” and “Domesticating Freedom.” Throughout all four chapters, Fox-Amato achieves a remarkable balance between photographic criticism and contextualizing his archive within the historico-social contexts of the US between 1840 and 1860. For example, in “Policing Personhood” the author begins with the local history of the Minors, a slaveholding family in South Carolina. By beginning with this family history, the author shows how integral photography was to the “private imagination” of slaveowners. As part of their photography collection, the Minor family had cartes de visite of both agricultural and nonagricultural slaves, commonly referred to as “house slaves.” In a photograph of one of these slaves, named “Moses,” the sitter is shown dressed in genteel clothing and posed in a stately manner. The author reads this particular image as exemplary of the hierarchical categorization of slave identities depending on proximity to the slave master's house. Regardless of this stratification, all slaves were viewed as property, a social status that becomes clear in these commissioned portraits. Slave masters chose the clothing, posture, and props that would be included in the slave portraits, which goes to show the degree to which slave masters wielded their power and fabricated visual narratives that would, they hoped, keep them immune to criticisms of physical abuse toward their slaves. By resorting to the genre of the family photograph, slaveholding families such as the Minors orchestrated what Fox-Amato refers to as an “intimate regime”—a phrase that underscores the subtle violence that subtended the commission of quaint slave portraits. The imbrication of intimacy and violence echoes Saidiya Hartman's theorization of pleasure on the plantation in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997).
In Chapter Two, titled “Enduring Images,” Fox-Amato theorizes the means through which enslaved black peoples came to understand visual motifs that were emblematic of civility, gentility, personhood, and wealth as part of their strategies of self-representation. The author argues that enslaved black people, while generally textually illiterate, managed to develop a visual literacy by studying the portraits of their slaveholders. In this case, the national circulation of the daguerreotype not only aided in the entrenchment of the slavery economy, but, in the hands of enslaved black people, aided in a deep understanding of their positions as slaves, which posed a threat to their masters and rendered them vulnerable to additional abuse and torture.
Fox-Amato's third chapter, “Realizing Abolition,” proffers an account of abolitionist photography that dispels the notion that anti-slavery circles in the North reached a consensus about how photography would be used as a propagandistic tool. The author argues that the materiality of the daguerreotype posed specific challenges to abolitionists' preexistent communicative strategies. Fox-Amato writes that “photography, however, could not give abolitionists their customary views of slavery, for early cameras lacked the physical mobility and quick exposures necessary to make eyewitness shots of floggings and auction sales” (106). Because of early photography's constraints, the political messages of the abolitionist movement had to be reimagined and calibrated to the demands of this new medium. While print culture paved a significant way for the movement in terms of cultivating a readership around the anti-slavery agenda and currying empathy around the subjugated black body (particularly the icon of the kneeling, shackled slave), photography provided an opportunity for the formation of new abolitionist visual language. Because, for example, flogged bodies could not be photographed in real time, abolitionist visual strategists focused on how to use scars and healed wounds as signs of slavery's haunting brutality. The title of Fox-Amato's third chapter is apropos in challenging unilateral understandings of the relationship between abolitionism and photography; in the author's view, photography did not fit neatly into the needs of the movement. Contrarily, the abolitionist movement had to “realize” a new visual vocabulary on account of the differences between print and photography as two entirely different mediums. Thus, photography operated as a means of forcing members of the anti-slavery campaign to redefine its political messaging, and ultimately, the campaign itself.
In Fox-Amato's final chapter, “Domesticating Freedom,” the author shows how the daguerreotype was mobilized as part of symbolic warfare waged by both the North and the South. While the author dedicates his previous chapters to more intimate, private accounts of image-making, this closing chapter excels in showing the mobilization of the daguerreotype on the national stage by a multitude of actors: abolitionists, slavery apologists, Civil War soldiers, slaveholding families, itinerant photographers, photography gallerists, and enslaved black people. Fox-Amato argues that the North won the Civil War on multiple fronts including militarily, economically, and photographically. War photography that displayed the ruin of the Southern landscape, in tandem with northern abolitionist documentation of brutalized, enslaved bodies, played a defining role in constructing both the black body and the Civil War in the nation's cultural imaginary.