See Their Faces

Confronting “some of the most challenging images in the history of photography”

Photograph of the cover of To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes

Photograph by Fabrizio Amoroso/Aperture

The pictures are spectral, disorienting portals into the slave South. The 15 daguerreotypes of South Carolina slaves, taken by Joseph Zealy at the behest of Swiss-born Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz in 1850, have the eerie intimacy of mugshots. Today, they’re the earliest known photographs of enslaved people. Their seven subjects—Jack, Drana, Delia, Renty, Fassena, Foulah or Alfred, and Jem—stripped naked, stare straight into the camera, forcing the viewer to “look into the faces of people who were enslaved,” says Ilisa Barbash, curator of visual anthropology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Barbash is one of the editors of To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes, a new book of essays and original research on the photographs’ origins, their social context, and how—or whether—modern viewers are to look at them. 

Who are the individuals in these disturbing photos? Why did Agassiz commission them? What did he want them to show? What did nineteenth-century viewers see when they looked at them? These are some of the questions that the volume aims to answer. Yet even after 400-plus pages, the violence of the photographs defies comprehension. “Even in a most vulnerable state, they were unflinching,” writes Keziah Clarke ’20 (who encountered the images in a course with history professor Robin Bernstein) of the enslaved subjects. “They did not let on that anything was amiss. I cannot quite wrap my head around that. There is no way for me to ever understand that.” 

Agassiz, who was one of the most prominent biologists of the nineteenth century and a proponent of polygenesis, or the idea that different human races had different biological origins, commissioned the daguerreotypes to support his hypothesis. But whatever scientific evidence Agassiz believed underlay his research on race, his ideas were profoundly shaped by his racist instincts and emotions. In an oft-quoted 1846 letter to his mother, written soon after arriving in the United States, he declared: “It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with negroes…I can scarcely express to you the painful impression that I received, especially since the feeling that they inspired in me is contrary to all our ideas about the confraternity of the human type and the unique origin of our species….I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they are really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to reprocess the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.”  

Agassiz presented the Zealy daguerreotypes just once, at a meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Club in 1850; they were never published. No notes from that meeting exist, but it’s likely that the attendees were deeply uncomfortable with his ideas. He had already been rebuked by audiences in the North for his claims of polygenesis, writes historian Molly Rogers in a chapter for To Make Their Own Way in the World. 

So these “most challenging images,” as the Peabody Museum describes them, were filed away and forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1976. Various scholars and artists have since responded to the images in their work; they’re also the subject of a lawsuit filed last year by Tamara Lanier, who says she’s a descendant of Renty and Delia (Renty’s daughter) and argues that the photographs should belong to the subjects’ descendants, not to Harvard. When the daguerreotypes were undergoing conservation more than a decade ago, Barbash and her colleagues initially thought they would create an exhibit about them. “We came to understand that because so many people had different perspectives on the daguerreotypes, that perhaps starting with a book might be a better idea,” she remembers. “An exhibition often tends to be the voice of the museum or the curators. We decided that it needed a multi-vocal, multi-disciplinary approach.” 

Each of the book’s perspectives adds a layer of understanding about the circumstances that made the daguerreotypes possible. “In the history of pictorial representation, it is one thing to appear nude and quite another to be portrayed as a body shown stripped, partially naked, an index of having been forcibly revealed,” writes Sarah Lewis, associate professor of the history of art and architecture and of African and African American studies. Two of the men, Foulah and Jem, are shown completely naked, while the other subjects have their clothes stripped down to their waists. The two women, Delia and Drana, “both sit, breasts exposed, with their hands on top of their dresses, bunched in their laps.” At the time the photos were taken, Lewis explains, “the pictorial gesture of uncloaking was a symbolic cue that transformed a work of art into evidence for natural science.”  

The photos are displayed in the same small cases—lined with red velvet and framed by a decorative border—that adorned the many other, more ordinary daguerreotypes of this period. A technology invented in 1839, the daguerreotype quickly surged in popularity and “democratized portraiture and placed a literal self-image in the hands of millions,” writes poet and photographic historian John Wood. “It was as extraordinary an event in the nineteenth century as the development of personal computers and the internet has been in our own time.” It was common for Americans to sit for “occupational images,” Wood explains, “proudly posing with the tools of their trade…Joseph T. Zealy’s daguerreotypes of Jack, Jem, Fassena, Renty, Alfred, Delia, and Drana are the diametric opposites of the occupational images; a weird reversal of the free-labor ideal.”  


Photograph of Sojourner Truth (1864) by an unknown artist
Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Other chapters focus on the uses of early photography by African Americans, even by the enslaved, to communicate with their loved ones and create portraits of themselves as they wanted to be seen. “They found value in the very same visual form that Agassiz thought could prove that they had separate biological origins from whites,” writes historian Matthew Fox-Amato. “Photography generated new ways for these individuals to de-commodify themselves.” In an essay about her own family history, professor of history and of African and African American studies Evelyn Higginbotham includes photographs of her enslaved ancestors and family members, who had their portraits taken in just this way. Her great aunt Margaret Anne, who was born in 1840, sat for a photograph around 1858. “Unlike the bare-breasted enslaved women in Joseph T. Zealy’s daguerreotypes for Louis Agassiz,” Higginbotham writes, “Margaret Anne is fully dressed in what appears to be heavy satin. The detailing of the bodice is ornate, with a fringed-shawl look…The photograph conveys neither slave status nor an underlying premise of racial inferiority.” Yet Margaret Anne was sold and died a slave not long after, a tragedy that Higginbotham’s grandfather never forgot. Higginbotham’s family portraits bring to mind the widely circulated portraits of other former slaves, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who understood the importance of controlling their own representation in this new medium.  

“The full set of Zealy’s daguerreotypes is so chilling that I often debate whether and, more specifically, how I should let students view them in my courses,” Sarah Lewis writes. This is the question that remains for the contemporary reader. Can anything be recovered from continuing to look at these images, whose subjects did not consent to them and didn’t want to be seen this way? “The daguerreotypes document the violence of slavery even as they perpetuate that violence,” writes William Henry Pruitt III, a Ph.D. student in African and African American studies. “Is this documentation worth the continued violence? I do not think any answer to this question will ever satisfy me.” 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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