How Artists Change the World

By Brooks, David | International New York Times, August 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

How Artists Change the World


Brooks, David, International New York Times


Frederick Douglass used photography to alter perceptions of African-Americans.

As usual, there were a ton of artists and musicians at the political conventions this year. And that raises some questions. How much should artists get involved in politics? How can artists best promote social change?

One person who serves as a model here was not an artist but understood how to use a new art form. Frederick Douglass made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, which is kind of amazing. He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126). He also wrote four lectures on photography.

Douglass used his portraits to change the way viewers saw black people. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard points out that one of Douglass's favorite rhetorical tropes was the chiasmus: the use of two clauses in a sentence in reversed order to create an inverse parallel.

For example, Douglass wrote, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man."

And that's what Douglass did with his portraits. He took contemporary stereotypes of African-Americans -- that they are inferior, unlettered, comic and dependent -- and turned them upside down.

Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years. You can see the progression of Douglass portraits in a new book called "Picturing Frederick Douglass," curated by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, and you can read a version of Gates's essay in the new special issue of Aperture magazine, guest edited by Sarah Lewis.

In almost all the photographs, Douglass is formally dressed, in black coat, vest, stiff formal collar and bow tie. He is a dignified and highly cultured member of respectable society.

But within that bourgeois frame there is immense personal force. Douglass once wrote, "A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity." Douglass's strong features project relentless determination and lionlike pride. In some early portraits, starting when he was around age 23, his fists are clenched.

In some of the pre-Civil War photos he stares directly into the camera lens, unusual for the time. And then there was his majestic wrath. In 1847 he told a British audience that when he was a slave he had "been punished and beaten more for [my] looks than for anything else -- for looking dissatisfied because [I] felt dissatisfied."

Douglass brought that look of radical dissatisfaction to the studio. …

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