HARTFORD, Connecticut — Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an expert on all things Frederick Douglass, having written about the great orator and abolitionist for some four decades.
“I wrote one essay that I really value about Frederick Douglass’ theory of photography and the role of representation in the apparatus of race,” said the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
Inviting Gates to curate an exhibition marking the 180th anniversary of Douglass’ first visit to Hartford was a no-brainer for the Wadsworth Atheneum. Museum leadership wanted to pair “Lessons of the Hour,” a film installation by the British artist Isaac Julien, with a selection of portraits featuring Douglass, the most photographed American in the 19th century.
“When I got the email, I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I have the knowledge to do,’” Gates recalled. “I just didn’t have any experience with curating. But I knew someone who did.”
He quickly proposed partnering with colleague Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and associate professor of African and African American studies. “I Am Seen… Therefore, I Am,” co-curated by Gates and Lewis, explores Douglass’ embrace of what was then an emerging art. The exhibition is on view through Sept. 24.
“Lessons of the Hour” (2019) anchors the show. The 28-minute work, which takes its title from Douglass’ 1894 speech against lynching, is presented on five screens, each running separate but linked video. It evokes the busy walls of a 19th-century salon, with actors recreating scenes from Douglass’ life — including his 1867 portrait session with J.P. Ball, a Black photographer with one of the most bustling studios in 19th-century America. In an opening night conversation, Julien noted the film was influenced by Gates’ work on Douglass, including his essay for the 2015 book “Picturing Frederick Douglass.”
The film’s lead actor quotes from several of Douglass’ famous speeches, including 1861’s “Lecture on Pictures,” his earliest articulation of photography’s capacity to counter racist stereotypes. “Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, photographs, and electrotypes, good and bad, now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings,” Douglass says in the film. “Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them. What was once the exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now within reach of all.”
That speech, delivered in Boston amid the first months of the Civil War, wasn’t what anybody expected, Gates explained on opening night. The audience had thought Douglass would talk about abolition or strategies for defeating the South.
“Instead, they heard, ‘Go to a studio and get your daguerreotype taken.’”