Finding freedom at last, in black, white, sepia

New York TimesJanuary 5, 2013 

"Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, : by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.

  • Nonfiction Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer Temple University Press, 240 pages

First, there was the big question, which Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer had been talking about for years: What does freedom look like?

Then there was the small, somber face of Dolly, whose photograph the two women had come across separately in their research and wondered about ever since. It was affixed to a handwritten wanted notice from 1863, under a headline offering a “$50 Reward!!” for the return of Dolly to her owner in Augusta, Ga.

It was curiosity about both the question and the intriguing Dolly – whose fate is unknown – that drove these historians to produce “Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.” Published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, the book brings together more than 150 images – half never seen by the public – that depict the many ways slavery, emancipation and freedom were represented by photography during the Civil War era and beyond.

It is the latest in a recent spate of projects linked to emancipation and the Civil War that has contributed to a national conversation about that war’s legacy, including Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and an exhibition, “The Civil War and American Art,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Willis, head of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University, and Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said that in compiling the book they hoped to expand the photographic record in a way that would stimulate fresh considerations of race and freedom.

They spent years searching museums, libraries and other archives around the country, poring over more than 1,000 photographs.

“We wanted a range of images that showed the scope of the thinking about what freedom looked like,” Willis said. “We consciously looked for black photographers; we consciously looked for images of women, whose stories have often not been included.”

Everyday life

Mostly, she added, they sought evocative photographs of everyday life to form a collection that could serve, in Krauthamer’s words, as “a family album” of “the collective African-American experience.”

What they found were mainly “images that have gone missing from the historical record,” Willis said. There are pictures of enslaved people on plantations, but also well-off black families in tender poses, proud black Union soldiers, escaped slaves aboard a Union warship, Emancipation Day celebrations and reunions of former slaves. There are portraits of unknown black men and women who stepped into photography studios in their Sunday best to assert and showcase their new, postslavery self-images, along with well-known subjects like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

“There is a visceral kind of understanding you get from images like these that you don’t get from text,” said Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University whose book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” won a Pulitzer Prize. He said the notion of African-Americans as key players in shaping history was second nature to scholars, but “still hasn’t percolated out to the general historical understanding.”

He added, “I do think images like this can be very, very important.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, said the book helped “expand the visual record to show the infinite variety of the ways we lived and the ways we expressed ourselves.”

The lives of black people at that time are “such an abstraction, except for cinematic images,” he said, noting that even the popular and widely praised “Lincoln” has been criticized by scholars and others for not depicting fully realized African-American characters engaged in the struggle to end slavery.

Most photographs in “Envisioning Emancipation” were made between the 1850s and the 1930s.

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