Review of “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American” by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He took a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed.

Picturing Frederick Douglas mech.indd

This gorgeous volume contains 160 photographs of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of his century. The photos, taken from 1841 to 1895, are extensively annotated. The book also includes pictures of Douglass that are representations of him by others, including cartoons, sketches, and posters. Most importantly, it contains a biography and the text of a number of Douglass’s speeches, especially those on the importance of the visual image, and how images could and should change perceptions of Americans about the morality of slavery.

Douglass gave Susan B. Anthony this photo of himself, taken in May 1848. Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society

Douglass gave Susan B. Anthony this photo of himself, taken in May 1848. Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society

Douglass was way ahead of his time in many ways, one of which was his understanding of the power of pictures to mesmerize, to capture truth, to counter caricatures, and to stir the emotions. Recognition of the revolutionary potential of representation led Douglass to believe that photography would establish that blacks held as property were not in fact “things” but human beings. He capitalized on his own dignified appearance to help spread this message, distributing his own photos widely.

But as Douglass’s ancestor, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., points out in an Afterword, it was not only the pictures of Douglass and others that established that all people were created equal:

His words painted a portrait of profound depth and refinement, and they destroyed the enslaver’s hoax that there are people born for a life of servitude.”

Frederick Douglass, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Frederick Douglass, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

The authors, in their Introduction, also credit the reinforcing influence of both Douglass’s textual and visual avenues of communication:

Indeed, his portraits and words sent a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers.”


Evaluation: This book, of “coffee-table” quality, should be an essential part of any library on history as well as art. Frederick Douglass, had and still has, so much to teach us about heroism, persistence, intelligence, and integrity.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, January 21, 1863 Hillsdale College

Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, January 21, 1863 Hillsdale College

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