In 1850 seven South Carolina slaves were photographed at the request of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz to provide evidence of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. Lost for many years, the photographs were rediscovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976. In the first narrative history of these images, Molly Rogers tells the story of the photographs, the people they depict, and the men who made and used them. Weaving together the histories of race, science, and photography in nineteenth-century America, Rogers explores the invention and uses of photography, the scientific theories the images were intended to support and how these related to the race politics of the time, the meanings that may have been found in the photographs, and the possible reasons why they were lost” for a century or more. Each image is accompanied by a brief fictional vignette about the subject’s life as imagined by Rogers; these portraits bring the seven subjects to life, adding a fascinating human dimension to the historical material.
Photographs of slaves reveal much about the men who took them in this perceptive study of antebellum racial ideology. Historian Rogers examines a cache of daguerreotype portraits and nudes of South Carolina slaves made in 1850 for naturalist Louis Agassiz, which he displayed to buttress his theory that Africans were a distinct species unrelated to whites. She uses the pictures as a window into 19th-century racial science and its intersection with Southern economic interests, and tries to illuminate the perspective of the slaves by pairing their photos with short fictional vignettes written from their imagined viewpoints. Rogers is preoccupied with critical theory (“the idea that a photographic image conveys Truth is thus a highly unstable concept”), and her fictional epiphanies—“He did not wish to be on the ocean, but he wished to have it nearby so he could feel its movement on the air”—sometimes evoke a writers' workshop more than a plantation. Still, her well-researched history paints a rich panorama of the mental world of slavery—the slaves' anxiety and humiliation, the planters' callousness and hypocrisy, the corrupt pseudoscience that explained it all as natural law rather than human oppression. Photos. (May)