Matthew Fox-Amato on Photography, Slavery, and Antislavery

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Fox-Amato_WebPhotoMatthew Fox-Amato is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Program at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently revising his dissertation (which won the McNeil Center’s 2014 Zuckerman Prize) for publication as a book, Exposing Humanity: Slavery, Antislavery, and Early Photography in America, 1839–1865. This project explores how photography reshaped the experience and politics of slavery.

What drew your attention to this topic?

I held a longstanding fascination with the political cultures of social movements. Over the course of my graduate work, I also grew more interested in the pressing questions that Susan Sontag and others were asking about the role of images of suffering in shaping empathy and political engagement. The antebellum era, which witnessed a flowering of reform movements alongside the rise of photography, seemed a prime place to explore this constellation of interests. Aware of images such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), inspired by scholars (namely Mary Niall Mitchell, Nell Irvin Painter, John Stauffer, and Deborah Willis) who had worked on race and early photography, I initially envisioned a study of antislavery photography.

This topic, however, soon turned into but one chapter in a broader project. As I began my preliminary research, I started to glimpse a largely unstudied history of photography within late antebellum bondage. I came across a few digitized daguerreotypes and cartes de visite of enslaved men and women— images commissioned by slaveholders. A tantalizing newspaper source about African Americans buying daguerreotypes from an itinerant photographer in 1850s Alabama intrigued me. These early pieces of evidence forced me to re-conceptualize photography as more than simply a tool for northern reformers and radicals. I began to see the medium as a cultural middle ground between proponents and opponents of bondage. How, I now asked, had photography undermined, supported, and shaped American slavery in the Civil War era? My early interest in social movement image-making evolved into a deep curiosity about a twenty-six year overlap (1839 to 1865) between a new technology and a particular social structure. I set out to understand the connections.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic?

My first step was to sketch the contours of a written and visual source base. As I wrote my prospectus, I sent a flurry of emails to archives in both the North and South. I was looking for photographs of slaves, ex-slaves, and abolitionists, for manuscript materials of slaveholders and abolitionists that might reveal photographic practices, and for records (logbooks, letters, memoirs) of early photographers.

I didn’t limit my research by geography for two reasons. First, since photography burst onto the scene in the 1840s, and everyone across the urban and rural United States could find a daguerreotype gallery or visit an itinerant artist by 1850, it made the most sense to follow the technology. Second, certain dimensions of my dissertation required a few days in many institutions (rather than a few months in one or two cities). For instance, one part of my project examines how slaveholders commissioned portrait photographs of their slaves. I knew I wouldn’t find a box of fifty slave photographs, as it would have already been written about numerous times if it existed (as we’ve seen with the fifteen slave daguerreotypes commissioned by Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz in 1850). But I was intent on piecing together a new photographic archive, collection by collection

My research queries laid the groundwork for a six-month research road trip that started in Texas and included stops in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts. I followed this trip with a second full year of research (supported by a CLIR/Mellon fellowship). Setting foot in over thirty archives, I built a database of written records and photographs, many of which have yet to be published.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work? How were you able to use these sources differently than others?

My study of images made written sources useful in new ways. To understand photographic images as historical agents, we need to grasp how historical actors such as slaves, slaveholders, abolitionists, and soldiers made and used them. This approach builds upon the “material turn” in the history of photography, promoted by Elizabeth Edwards in particular, that pushes us to move beyond discursive analyses of photographs. While poses and props within the frames of portraits are undoubtedly important, so too are the social uses— the ways in which photographs have been held, displayed, mailed, kissed, and shattered. For my project, private letters, diaries, and memoirs of slaveholders, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers, slave narratives, and newspapers were essential means for illuminating practices of production, exchange, and display. One might study visual culture to understand the cultural production of ideas; I show how a focus on the material practices of images enriches social history too – allowing us to think anew about subjects including power relations, political networks, and family dynamics.

What future directions do you see for this work?

Right now I’m sharpening my analysis of vernacular images by thinking about their relation to human emotions. Too often, we equate quantity with historical significance. Mass culture has long been treated as a serious subject of study (one thinks of the great work on film and politics). But historical change takes place in every dimension of society. In my study, I analyze a few images that many people encountered, and I assess many images that only a few people encountered. We can more clearly see the importance of personal photographs when we account for the feelings they elicited—the anger and delight, yearning and pride. When fugitive slaves passed along the Underground Railroad, they paused to take photographs that never circulated widely yet aroused intense feelings for the abolitionists who kept them. Studying private photographs, in this case and others, helps broaden our view of the workings of antebellum political culture.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations? 

Strive to find ways of pushing through the murkiness that comes with original research. You can’t travel around this confusion: you need to push right through it to achieve clarity. This is especially true of the writing process. Every dissertation writer needs strategies for making sense of the seemingly chaotic set of sources from the archive, for structuring the argument and arc of a chapter, and for making the prose in that chapter both clear and compelling. I would never have finished in six years if I had not set and met strict chapter deadlines, nor would I have finished those chapters had I not taken long walks to help clarify my ideas. Develop your own practices for making the isolating moments of writing productive. Aim, also, to advance your work within broader circles, by making the feedback of peers an essential part of your process. Find someone or a few people you trust (if it’s a writing group, great, if it’s a good friend or friends, even better) to discuss fledgling ideas and those early, oftentimes ugly drafts. Strike your own balance between the individual and social nature of writing.

What limitations or drawbacks did you experience in working with your sources and methods?

For historians, the possibilities of the photographic archive are many: the role of vernacular photography in the history of the family; the use of photographs as evidence in legal history; the eyewitnessing function of war photography in, well, the history of war. But the photographic archive also presents specific problems. One of the key issues I wrestled with was how easily images become untethered from basic contextual information. A good number of photographs I examined lacked an identifiable artist and date; some portraits even lacked the names of the sitters. I spent many an afternoon pouring through slaveholders’ diaries, wills, and family bibles to grasp details about the history of a photograph and the life of the enslaved person who sat for that image. These details would help me to say something larger about how photography shaped power dynamics in a slave society.

Did you find any unexpected sources?

Each dimension of my project held its own archival surprises. I was continuously surprised to find more daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes de visite of enslaved people. I didn’t anticipate I would encounter written and visual sources that reveal how abolitionists and fugitive slaves made and shared photographs along the Underground Railroad. And I knew that “Civil War photography” would somehow play an important role in the end of my story, but I never thought I would find written evidence illuminating the production and private circulation of interracial photographs that pictured northern soldiers and fugitive slaves in Union army camps.

The most unexpected sources, however, were the written records that helped me to write a whole chapter exploring how slaves bought, obtained, used, and understood photographs. Scholarship in the history of photography suggested that such a line of inquiry would be a dead end. On the other hand, the transformative work on enslaved people’s internal economy and property over the past two decades, produced by historians such as Roderick A. McDonald and Dylan Penningroth, gave me a hunch that I might find evidence. Through research in slave narratives, newspapers, and photographers’ logbooks and memoirs, I was able to gather enough material to show that, during the 1840s and 1850s, enslaved people were actively engaging this new form of visual and consumer culture.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

My project takes seriously the notion that everyday people do not simply consume but also make and use images. Borrowing from visual culture scholars, I use the term “photographic practitioners” to describe how enslaved people, owners, radicals, and soldiers commissioned and employed photographs to great effect in the Civil War era. There is, of course, a particularity to this moment, as one of the most dramatic effects of the rise of photography was to democratize portraiture and enable new forms of visual self-definition and communication. This transformation was due, in no small part, to the affordability and accessibility of the medium. But the notion of an image practitioner can easily be transported to other times and places. We broaden our view of lived experience by treating image making as a meaningful and consequential activity for non-artists.

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1 Comment

  1. Matthew
    I have a book that will be published in 2016 called Shot in Alabama: a Photographic History and Photographers Checklist, 1839-1941 (U AL Press) and may have some information that would be of interest to you, even though it sounds as if you have finished your dissertation. I also know of a newspaper notice about the photographer who was run out of town for taking photographs of African-Americans. Perhaps it is the same notice you saw. I too am intrigued by the idea that photographs had a special meaning for enslaved blacks and also for free blacks.

    Frances Robb

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