Visual History and African American Families of the Nineteen Century
Wells, Donna M., Negro History Bulletin
When photography was introduced to the world in 1839, it revolutionized the way in which Americans perceived themselves and how they would be perceived by others. Originally, the process of making photographs was only made known to artists and scientists. For scientists, photography became a tool for providing visual proof of findings and to support scientific theories about such issues as racial inferiority. Within the art world, photography provided artists a cheaper and faster medium for creating likenesses of their clients.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, photography had developed into an important component of documentary work, especially for the new fields of study anthropology and sociology. The impact of photography on the African-American family, both as a means of livelihood and as visual record, has only recently received scholarly attention. Only within the last fifteen years have photo historians brought our attention to the contribution of African Americans to the photographic profession and only within the past ten years have publications been introduced that critique the way in which African Americans have been portrayed graphically throughout history.
The photograph collections in archival repositories focusing on African Americans, cover the realm of images involving African Americans either as photographer or as the subject. One of the richest areas for study of African-American social history are the photographs contained in personal papers and manuscript collections. Yet photographs continue to be used mainly as illustration for text rather than as a stand-alone resource or as a supportive document. Genealogists have long recognized the value of photography as a stand-alone document for research but that research usually centers around a single family history.
Genealogical research, when conducted within the context of African-American history using a variety of resources, offers a more encompassing perspective of the African American family in American society. In other words, our individual family photographs can provide a wealth of information about society in general.
Contemporary research in African- American history examines topics such as women's history, labor, the middle-class, urban life, science and invention, and religion. Family collections are a major source of information about these topics.
Why people take photographs has not changed much since its invention. Family collections are full of individual portraits and photographs of family milestones. Typical images include pictures of graduations, weddings, birthdays, family gatherings, the birth of a child or a photograph of the home. Daniel Freeman, a Washington D.C. photographer who operated at the turn of the century, also mentions the popular vanity shots which people still take with the single objective of having a visual record of the self that can be given to others. Tabletop displays and photo albums in the home of the nineteenth century family included images of family, landscapes, foreign scenes and photographs of celebrated leaders of the day. African-American families living during the nineteenth century took photographs for much the same reasons. They were as much treasured then as they are now, which is why so many of them have survived.
Prior to photography's debut, only the wealthy and the powerful could afford the services of an artist to paint their portrait. Photography provided an affordable means for many to obtain likenesses. In an 1864 speech on pictures, Frederick Douglass discusses the impact that the early photographic formats made on society:
This may be termed an age of pictures. The sun
in his course having fumed artist has flooded the
world with pictures. Daguerreotypes, ambro-types,
engravings and drawings, good, bad and
indifferent adorn and disfigure, and as frequently
the latter as the former, all our dwellings. …