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Someone Already Colorized Those Civil War Photos…It Was Frederick Douglass!

October 18, 2013
Original photo by Andrew Gardner, Matthew Brady's apprentice,; showing Brigadier General Andrew Porter 1862 with George Custer petting dog

Original photo by Andrew Gardner, Mathew Brady’s apprentice, showing Brgdr. General Andrew Porter 1862 with George Custer petting dog

Two digital colorists have become so adept at their task that they’ve made news recently for coloring Mathew Brady’s historic Civil War photographs. Mads Dahl Madsen and Jordan J. Lloyd have since started their own agency, Dynachrome, specializing in digital restorations.

For my part, I wonder what all the fuss is. Are we to believe no one has re-colored these images of the War Between the States and the valiant men who fought in it before? It’s as if everyone has forgotten that these images have already been colorized. Way back, in fact, when the war was still brewing they were.

And the feat was carried off not through digital means but through oratorical mastery by none other than Frederick Douglass, the great ex-fugitive slave turned abolitionist and international speaking sensation.

Here’s how it happened. Douglass was an admirer of visual media. He wrote an essay called “Pictures and Progress” in which he lauds photography as a democratic invention. Now even the commonest person may have their portrait rendered as nobly as any Gainsborough subject. Douglass was even an astute reader of cartoons and caricatures printed in popular illustrated papers of the day like Punch, or the London Charivari and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

I wrote an essay about Douglass’s canny manipulations of public opinion by way of Punch cartoons–(not to mention a book on the subject as well). The connection should not surprise readers of Douglass’s 1845 or 1855 narratives. He had an incisive wit and a legendary sense of humor.

But pictures were nothing if not political to Douglass. He saw physical pictures as being tied invisibly to mental ones. If you could alter one, you could alter the other. And Douglass was passionate about getting at the prevailing ideologies of his day to re-frame public opinion about the place and value of African Americans.

Throughout the early 1860s, Douglass battled against debasing public snapshots of “Negro” inferiority, mental pictures in people’s minds reinforced by visual burlesques from minstrelsy, which shamefully reigned as the most popular form of mass entertainment at the time.

But Douglass didn’t just oppose overtly demeaning images. He was also uncommonly aware of the implied political narratives and logics behind popular images, such as Brady’s military portraits, which enshrined particular types of Americans as ideal soldiers — that most important kind of citizen subject during war.

In his 1865 speech “What Does the Negro Want?” Douglass presents a verbal tableau that overturns misconceptions about the supposed non-participation of slaves in the war effort:

“When our generals sent their underlings in shoulder-straps to hunt the flying negro back from our lines into the jaws of slavery, from which he had escaped, the negroes thought that a mistake had been made, and that the intentions of the Government had not been rightly understood by our officers in shoulder-straps, and they continued to come into our lines, threading their way through bogs and fens, over briers and thorns, fording streams, swimming rivers, bringing us tidings as to the safe path to march, and pointing out the dangers that threatened us.”

Aside from widely reprinted newspaper illustrations that converted the Union officer into so many shoulder-strapped icons, Douglass’s imagery draws upon a longstanding visual tradition in abolitionist iconography. Countless abolitionist images depicted the freedom-seeking slave scampering through the wilderness in search of a national space hospitable to its aspirations. Many show the “Negro” like Stowe’s Eliza jumping across the “ice cakes” of the Ohio River, or slaves like Henry Bibb or William Wells Brown, running through woods being chased by fierce slave-catching dogs.

Remarkably, these images were used to promote abolitionist charities among well-to-do women of the North, who bought items with such images on them and displayed them (along with the liberal politics they conveyed) in parlors from Maine to Michigan on such things as pillow cases, dinnerware plates, and pins.

More remarkably, Douglass’s language in the quotation above conceals a time-release digital re-mastering of Brady’s photo. In it, you’ll come to recognize that he’s forcing listeners to picture the standard mental image of a Union officer through the synecdoche of the shoulder strap. But now that we’ve got that image in our heads, perhaps from one of Brady’s photographs of the always white Union officer, we can go on to flesh out the typical scene.

There’s often a white canvas tent in the background, but not always. What tends to comprise the background more reliably is foliage. Blurred background bushes and trees. Foliage marks the natural boundary separating the scene of the portrait and the wilds — to the picturing Northern imaginary anyway — of the Southern campaign.

And once you’ve got nineteenth-century Northerners picturing Southern foliage, it doesn’t take much to conjure up those abolitionist tableaux. Only now, instead of running from dogs or running away North, Douglass’s slave moves through “bogs and fens, over briers and thorns, fording streams, swimming rivers,” moving inexorably toward Union troops armed with deadly news of enemy locations.

If we peer through the open tent in Brady’s picture above, dragging our eyes away from the weird shock of young Custer and his pensive pooch, beyond the shoulder straps of the officers on proud display, you might see a sliver of the forest to which Douglass alludes. There, in those trees, is a rustling. Out of the bending boughs of background shrubbery, steps a figure who gives information necessary to the direction of Union troops.

We would normally call a person who holds such knowledge an officer. That’s the kind of knowledge only someone with shoulder straps would possess. And yet, in Douglass’s speech, the compulsory white American soldier is literally re-colored, making room in the white imagination — in that place where all politics are born and filtered — for a soldier who is not automatically white, or even uniformed, but who is committed to the war effort in body and mind nevertheless.

And Douglass’s mastery at mental picture re-touching appears in just about all of his speeches from the 1860s to the 1880s. So what’s all the hubbub about these newly colorized photos? Don’t people watch and see their history anymore as well as read it?

One Comment
  1. I remember reading Douglass’s (‘s’s’s’s?) autobiography years ago. One thing that sticks out in my mind was how he played with the other kids to learn the letters of the alphabet. They had a game where they would write the letter in the dirt with a stick. He learned the alphabet this way.
    He is a very interesting character.

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