Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Harvard's Slave Photos Raise Many Questions

Following-up, "Harvard University Pledges $100 Million to Redress Past Ties to Slavery (VIDEO)."

At the New York Times, "The First Photos of Enslaved People Raise Many Questions About the Ethics of Viewing."

This is Renty below, in a very famous photograph you may have seen before.

From the article:

For a century, they languished in a museum attic. Fifteen wooden cases, palm-size and lined with velvet. Cocooned within are some of history’s cruelest, most contentious images — the first photographs, it is believed, of enslaved human beings.

Alfred, Fassena and Jem. Renty and his daughter Delia. Jack and his daughter Drana. They face us directly in one image and stand in profile in the next, bodies held fixed by an iron brace. The Zealy daguerreotypes, as the pictures are known, were taken in 1850 at the behest of the Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz. A proponent of polygenesis — the idea that the races descended from different origins, a notion challenged in its own time and refuted by Darwin — he had the pictures taken to furnish proof of this theory.

Agassiz wanted images of barbarity, and he got them — implicating only himself. He had hand-selected his subjects in South Carolina, seeking types — “specimens,” as he put it — but each daguerreotype reveals an individual, deeply dignified and expressive. Their hurt, contempt, fatigue, utter refusal are unequivocal. The photographer, Joseph T. Zealy, who specialized in society portraits, did not alter his method for the shoot; he carried on as usual, using the same light, the same angles, giving the images their unsettling, formal perfection.

Agassiz showed the pictures only once. They were then tucked away at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Rediscovered in 1976, they have been at the center of urgent debates about photography ever since...