The Zealy Daguerreotypes: Power and Possession

Somehow, in the middle of the day, on our way to the Peabody Museum, we got lost. We travelled amidst a sea of indistinguishable red brick buildings, adorned with familiar names (Lowell, Agassiz, Bauer), and nestled in an expanse of endless lawns. We were only a few blocks from the main campus—the occasional map or Harvard logo told us so—yet with every step it felt as though we were walking further away from the world we knew.

Perhaps the obscurity of these objects spoke to their place here.

When we finally found the museum, our journey did not end. Entering through old, heavy doors, we jumped through a series of curatorial hoops: we signed in, we tied up hair, we checked bags, we secured sunglasses. Finally, our guide led us through a discreet black gate into the bowels of the Peabody. Past sterile labs, past museum artifacts, past storage facilities, we were led until we reached the room. Like a bank vault, the heavy door opened, revealing a sort of catacomb of white walls, sterile lights, locked cabinets, empty chairs, and a clothed table that filled the room, supporting a dozen small display stands. As we entered the room, our guide gave us each a black cloth, instructed us to circle around the table, secured the entrance, then took her place next to our professor, Sarah Lewis, who had been waiting quietly for us.

The suspense that filled the room was, in a way, the same suspense that had filled our class since it began a few weeks earlier. Beginning just last year, Lewis’s course “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship” skyrocketed in popularity, offering students a chance to explore our nation’s racial history through the lens of visual representation. “We analyze [the photos’] effects and then very critically think about what do these images mean, what effects do they have, and how do we as viewers interpret this image in a way that does justice to what they were intended to do, as well as does justice to the subjects of the images,” Salma Abdelrahman, a student in the class, told the HPR.

One year later, the class capped at 90 drew some 200 eager students on the first day. Before even beginning, Lewis took out her phone to record the faces of the class—one she boasted that lacked a majority racial makeup. “I think that creates a space for the inclusion of opinions that might not be heard,” Alden Fossett, a student in Vision and Justice, told the HPR. “A lot of these images and the things we are studying show things that have either happened to [the students] or their families.”

Lewis, not unlike a preacher before a congregation, began with some quick pleasantries and introductions and then immediately dove into her presentation. For us students, there was an undeniable sense that we were in the presence of a scholar at the cutting edge of her field. She skillfully weaved through images ranging from 19th-century portraiture to the work of Obama White House photographer Pete Souza, from the commanding gaze of Frederick Douglass to a young black boy feeling Barack Obama’s hair. Between photos, she smoothly immersed herself into the audience, asking questions, collecting answers, and recalling student names despite the size of the group.

But the comfort of the class came to a stop with the touch of her clicker. From a photo of Frederick Douglass she lept to another of a black man in profile. The resemblance the photos bore to one another was palpable: both portrayed black men in a black-and-white photograph, matted with glittering gold frames. However, despite their resemblances, the contrast was sharp. Douglass was dressed in smart attire while the other man was naked. Douglass faced the viewer while the other man stood in profile. And while both lacked identification, Douglass needed no introduction while his counterpart was masked in pointed anonymity.

Lewis lingered on these images. Known as the Zealy daguerreotypes—an early form of photography printed on silver sheets—she explained how the objects had been commissioned by one of America’s most prominent scientists, Louis Agassiz, as evidence of black racial inferiority during the 19th century.

But most importantly, these images once belonged to the collection of a Harvard professor and were now housed in a Harvard archive. In the quiet room, Lewis continued with her presentation, promising to return to these images in the following weeks. Over the next week, applications were written, a lottery was run, and a slim margin of that first class returned to a more intimate room to continue our studies.

As weeks went by, these daguerreotypes began to occupy more of our time. We discussed their history and discussed visual analyses of their composition. And finally, Lewis made an announcement that we would form small groups to view the original objects ourselves at the Peabody the following week. The word “privilege” was used frequently—it was a privilege to see these precious artifacts that were viewed only once a year at one university for one class of students that were selected from an array of applicants. A signup email was sent, slots were filled, and students waited.

After running through a list of logistics (cough away from the objects, watch your hair, etc.), our guide allowed us to approach the table. Maintaining a safe distance, we held our black rags over the images to see the reflective surface (printed on silver). Yet, it was not an easy feat: many were rendered invisible by age. And the ones that were still legible could only be seen from certain angles and in the absence of any white light. The elusive figures would escape our sight until we could finally find them in the cloak of our cloth. What’s more, many commented on how their skin pigmentation dictated the ability to see. “We had to carry a cloth because the silver is reflective so you can see yourself in the image,” Fossett said. “It’s true that the darker your skin is, the less reflective the silver will be.”

Lewis’s voice—normally poised and brimming with care—turned cold and mechanical, systematically asking us to rotate between images at fixed intervals. For a brief moment the recognizable subjects would appear and stare through us as we examined them: Jack and his tears, Drana and her exposed torso.

“Rotate,” Lewis said. The figures disappeared back into silver oblivion.

“What we missed in lecture was a sense of intimacy,” Amir Hamilton, a student in the class, told the HPR. “You are able to get closer to the interiority of the people that are photographed.”

The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by Agassiz, a famed ethnologist who helped found the American School of Ethnology. The movement centered on the theory of polygenesis which argued that racial differences signified separate evolutionary tracks between races. To many, polygenesis provided the “irrefutable” evidence needed to justify racial hierarchy.

While Agassiz himself was a purported abolitionist, the careful language with which he prefaced the presentation of his scientific theories provides indisputable evidence that Agassiz was aware of the role his scientific theories played in pro-slavery ideology. As Agassiz wrote in the Christian Examiner, “We disclaim, however, all connection with any question involving political matters. It is simply with reference to the possibility of appreciating the differences existing between different men, and of eventually determining whether they have originated all over the world and under what circumstances, that we have tried to trace some facts representing the human races.” Whether or not a reflection of his own political views, Agassiz needed to articulate the debasement of African-Americans to prove his theory of race. Following a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1850, Agassiz recruited Joseph T. Zealy to help gather empirical data on the black body to substantiate his racial theory.

Harvard’s Aggasiz House.

Capturing the images of Renty, Delia, Jack, Drana, Alfred, Fassena and Jem, among others, the Zealy daguerreotypes sought to create specimens out of the slave population of South Carolina. The systematic processing of the figures records their physiology from every angle. Front, back, and side profiles show naked, unflinching bodies. The directness of the subjects’ gazes challenges the customary deference expected of slaves, revealing a small assertion of individual agency. This defiance further dramatizes the powerlessness of the figures as they are forced to surrender their bodies to public scrutiny.

The Zealy images employ a complex visual vocabulary to dehumanize their subjects. Engaging in the common academic dichotomy of portrait—an image that define an individual through their interiority—versus type—a generalized, representation of a group—the Zealy images create evidence of a racially inferior class. This conclusion is intentional. Careful to separate these works from contemporary portraits of white patrons—which featured elegant dress, accessories signifying wealth or intellect and a dignified, indirect gaze—Zealy’s half nude slaves are denied respectability and autonomy. Through the creation of these types, the subjective nature of photography is exploited to manufacture scientific data.

In the decades following their creation, these images faded from the public consciousness. Rediscovered in a Harvard attic in 1974, the works have reemerged as some of the most incendiary evidence of racism in American culture.

In her series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” Carrie Mae Weems contributes to this dialogue by contextualizing the Zealy daguerreotypes within a greater narrative. Overlaying enlarged copies of the photographs with inscriptions such as “FROM HERE YOU BECAME A SCIENTIFIC PROFILE” or “A NEGROID TYPE,” Weems returns humanity and consciousness to the photographic subject. Her prints carefully repurpose the Zealy daguerreotypes. The images of Renty, Delia, Jack and others are supplemented with gallery quality frames, colorful tints and narrative text. These elements combine to create portraits—images with interiority—out of Zealy’s types. The transformative power of Weem’s additions makes the viewer hyperconscious of the qualities that were stripped away from the subjects in the original images. By giving dignity back to her subjects, Weems further critiques the deplorable manner in which the artist, Zealy, denied it. “When we’re looking at these images,” Weems noted in an interview with MoMA, “we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.” In such a manner, Weems negotiates the complicated task of defining the identity of a subject without autonomy.  

Yet, the conflict that Weems encountered when seeking to use the images captured by the Zealy daguerreotypes is illustrative of the unresolved status of these works. Harvard, the owner of the Zealy daguerreotypes, confronted Weems for her use of these images. Pushing the case to the brink of a lawsuit, the level of scrutiny placed upon Weems as an artist contrasts sharply with the unquestioned authority of Zealy when he exploited the original subjects. In a moment of irony, the commercial success of the piece resulted in Harvard dropping its claims and, instead, buying a few of the portraits for its museum. Yet, tensions persist. In interviews with the HPR, representatives of both the Peabody Museum and Vision and Justice expressed an unwillingness to talk about the daguerreotypes on the record. The irresolution of Harvard in its engagement with Weem’s work is indicative of the strain surrounding these images and their public dissemination. Moving forward, serious questions remain. As a private owner of these images, does Harvard have the right to limit or monetize their visibility? Or, as the Zealy daguerreotypes are uniquely poignant records of race in America, is there a historical claim that supersedes university interests?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Daguerreotype Atelier, Wikimedia Commons/Agassiz House 

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