Smith frames contemporary photography with historical examples

Photography scholar and visual artist Shawn Michelle Smith outlined the connection betweeen the photographed subject and the slave. Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.
Photography scholar and visual artist Shawn Michelle Smith outlined the connection betweeen the photographed subject and the slave. Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.

On Oct. 13, photography scholar and visual artist Shawn Michelle Smith gave a lecture entitled “Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography,” organized by the American Studies department.

Smith’s lecture was based on her book-in-progress, tentatively titled Photographic Returns. While her past work has generally focused on the 19th and early-20th centuries, Smith’s upcoming book highlights contemporary artists, all of whom look back at past moments in American and African-American history through their art.

One of these artists is Rashid Johnson, a conceptual black photographer. Smith opened her lecture with a piece by Johnson, “Self Portrait with My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass.” In the photograph, Johnson is dressed in a white shirt, tie and jacket and stares at the viewer from a black background, light focused on his face and his hair parted to the left. Smith said Johnson’s portrait shows a careful study of a mid-1800s daguerreotype, an early form of photography, of Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller, in which Douglass also stares down the viewer in formal dress, hair parted to the left. The two men seem to be in conversation across time.

Smith pointed out, however, that the two portraits have important incongruities. The photographs are “colored inversions of each other,” she said, with Johnson gazing from darkness and Douglass from light. Perhaps most notably, Johnson modeled his pose and hairstyle not after Douglass himself, but after Douglass’ image specifically. Daguerreotypes worked like mirrors, so while Johnson parts his hair to the left in the 2003 piece, Douglass would in fact have had his hair parted to the right when he was being photographed, his image showing the reverse.

Johnson’s hairstyle, too, is “all wrong” in mimicking Douglass’s, Smith noted. The correct style is found in a different work of Johnson’s entitled “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett),” which presents, in black and white, two mirror images of a formally dressed man with Douglass’s hairstyle. It is unclear which image is the original and which is the reflection, “as if the mechanics of the daguerreotype are laid bare,” Smith said. Johnson, she noted, is always engaging with such “aesthetics of misdirection,” calling back to past historical moments and historical photographic techniques and playing with their implications. This specific piece references Emmett Till, the African-American teenager whose 1955 lynching was documented and widely circulated in before-and-after photos. Johnson’s doubling of his own Emmett recalls those before-and-after photos, but here the viewer is spared the image of Till’s murder and instead “Emmett reappears with Frederick Douglass hair,” Smith said. 

The centrality of Douglass in both Johnson’s work and Smith’s lecture is not only because of his prominence in American history, but also because of his deep engagement with photography as a medium. “Frederick Douglass proclaimed that photography would have far-reaching effects on self-understanding,” Smith said. “[He] understood that photos would uniquely keep the past alive in the present.” More than that, Douglass believed that picture-making and picture-appreciating was an instrumental part of being human, with the ability to objectify one’s self through a photograph demonstrating the essence of personhood. In 1861, he delivered a lecture called “Pictures and Progress” on that very subject, puzzling an audience who expected the famed abolitionist to discuss slavery. Of course, Smith noted, the two topics were not at all unrelated for Douglass.

Smith went on to discuss the connection between the photographed subject and the slave. While philosopher Roland Barthes felt the objectification of the self in photography was a form of “social death” — the self turned into an object, property — Douglass believed that same objectification indicated personhood and thus freedom, though not without complications. The photograph, Smith explained, could especially work to represent Douglass’ status as a fugitive slave. Both the fugitive slave and the photograph “trouble distinctions between person and property,” she said.

Douglass commissioned many photographs of himself — Smith added during the Q&A portion of her lecture that some scholars call him the most photographed person of his time. Though Douglass’ formal dress in each photograph mimics middle-class standards, the particulars of the portraits adhere to the conventions of heroic portraiture.

“Douglass sought to challenge racist representations that classified African-Americans as less than human,” Smith said.

In the many portraits, Douglass seems to be reenacting his freedom and his self-possession, displaying containment and control in the photographic objectification of the self and questioning the implications of that alienation. Johnson, in his references to Douglass and other moments in African-American history, continues that conversation more than a century later.

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