When in 1976 fifteen daguerreotypes of black men and women were discovered in the attic of the Peabody Museum, the question of their meaning and purpose was immediately raised. The images were clearly unusual in that they were not like most daguerreotypes made in America: they did not depict white middle-class men and women posing for the camera, hoping to discover in the resulting image something about themselves, some form of Truth that they and those close to them could cherish. No, these stark and bloodless images were not portraits; they were about something else—but what?
Attached to several of the daguerreotypes when they were discovered were handwritten labels. These provided the first clues to uncovering the meaning of the images. The labels give the name of each person photographed, the African ethnic group to which he or she was apparently related, and the name of his or her “owner.” The people in the photographs, this information revealed, were slaves who lived in or near Columbia, South Carolina. The woman who appears to have tears in her eyes was Delia, the daughter of Renty, one of the men photographed. According to the label fixed with a drop of glue to the velvet lining of his daguerreotype, Renty was born in the Congo, West Africa; his daughter was born in America. At the time their pictures were taken they lived on a plantation owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor, a wealthy cotton planter whose father had helped to found the city of Columbia. Also photographed were Drana and her father, Jack, as well as Alfred, Jem, and Fassena. These are the earliest known photographs of identifiable American slaves.
Why, when photography was still a rather new and complicated undertaking—and used almost exclusively for portraiture—did someone bother to photograph slaves, people regarded as having little or no status, people who were not even considered Americans?
In her role as chief cataloguer for the Peabody Museum, Ellie Reichlin conducted research on the daguerreotypes and was able to learn something of the slaveholders identified in the labels, but the meaning and purpose of the images remained elusive. She showed them to colleagues and select visitors to the museum in the hope that they might be able to shed some light on the matter. One such visitor, William Sturtevant, director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, remarked that the emphasis on body type evident in the images suggested they had been made for someone interested in physical anthropology. Each subject was positioned parallel to the picture plane and photographed frontally and in profile, with Jem also photographed from behind; they were also naked, their bodies revealed to the camera’s scrutiny. These were all conventions of anthropological imagery, and they led to the discovery that the Peabody Museum’s daguerreotypes had been made to support a controversial theory of human diversity. As well as being the earliest known photographs of identifiable American slaves, the daguerreotypes are also among the earliest anthropological photographs.
The daguerreotypes, Reichlin discovered, had been made in 1850 for the Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz. Recognized in Europe as an exceptionally gifted scientist in the fields of geology, paleontology, and ichthyology, Agassiz immigrated to the United States in 1846. Here he became a national figure, beloved of a people keen to learn about the natural world. Agassiz regularly lectured in cities up and down the eastern seaboard and became professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, where he influenced a generation of naturalists. He also became an important figure in the “American school” of ethnology, an informal group that galvanized the debate on race then preoccupying the scientific community and indeed the nation as a whole.
From Delia’s Tears by Molly Rogers. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with Permission.
Molly Rogers is a writer and independent scholar of American history and the history and theory of photography. She is associate director of the Center for the Humanities at New York University and the co-editor of To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes.