In 1838, Frederick Douglass fled Baltimore for New York and left slavery behind. Three years later, a budding abolitionist, he sat for his first photographic portrait—one of at least 160 he would sit for throughout his life.
In today’s image-saturated world, 160 photographs seems rather unremarkable. But in the 19th century, that figure was enough to earn Douglass the distinction of being the most photographed American of his time. Army officer George Custer came close with 155; Abraham Lincoln only made it to 126. Worldwide, only a handful of British celebrities and royals would top him.
For Douglass, this was no happy accident. Today, he is remembered as an influential advocate of emancipation and civil rights, a legacy defined by his best-selling autobiographies and powerful speeches. But what has largely been forgotten is the way he deftly manipulated the power of images to advance his cause.
To put it simply, Douglass was a photography buff. He penned four speeches expounding upon the medium throughout his life—one more than the man considered the Civil War era’s most prominent photo critic. He held Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, in great esteem for broadening photography’s appeal beyond the upper class. Because of daguerreotypes, Douglass claimed, “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.” He viewed photography as the most democratic of the arts.