Arts & Culture

Defining themselves

3 min read

Two 19th century daguerreotypes allowed African Americans to show their lives as they were

Two daguerreotypes, acquired by the Harvard Art Museum’s Department of Photographs in 2008 from a local dealer, offer viewers a glimpse at the world’s earliest form of photography, while delivering an important social statement about race in America.

Nestled in a small space reserved for new acquisitions and light-sensitive objects on the fourth floor of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the three-quarter-length images are portraits of an African-American man and a woman. The unidentified subjects, captured by an unknown artist, are middle-aged and dressed in formal, 19th century attire.

The daguerreotypes, measuring roughly 4 by 5 inches, were likely taken in the 1840s or ’50s in an urban setting such as New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, their accompanying text says.

The distinguished appearance of the man and woman sets them apart from some other daguerreotypes of black subjects of the period, in particular part of a collection housed at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Looking back into the camera, the two sitters reflect a sense of strength, social standing, and, perhaps most significantly, independence.

Harvard’s extensive collection of more than 3,500 daguerreotypes is located in museums, libraries, and archives across the University. Developed in France in the 1830s, the daguerreotype was the first photographic process, and resulted in a unique image on a silver-covered copper plate.

The works include portraits of many famous men and women. A well-known selection of daguerreotypes at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, compiled by scientist and nature historian Louis Agassiz, shows a number of South Carolina slaves.

“We wanted to have some representations of African Americans from that time period that could serve as a counter to the J.T. Zealy daguerreotypes at the Peabody, which are images of slaves commissioned by Louis Agassiz in the mid-19th century,” said Michelle Lamunière, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Assistant Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum.

“These two daguerreotypes are commissioned portraits by the sitters, as opposed to works commissioned by a scientist who was attempting to prove theories of polygenesis, which is what the Zealy daguerreotypes were.” Polygenesis is the since-discredited notion that racial differences were the result of humans descending from different ancestors.

What is important about the two new images, added Lamunière, is the way in which they are used for self-representation. During that era, she noted, African Americans often used photographs as a tool to counter racist stereotypes that were proliferating in print formats, such as sheet music illustrations and Currier and Ives lithographs. “Daguerreotypes,” she said, “offered the sitters a chance to negotiate between how society defined them and how they wanted to be defined themselves.”

The works will be on display through at least mid-February. For more information, visit