Enduring Truths

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1863; albumen print mounted on cardboard; 4 x 2 1/2 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. I sell the shadow to support the substance

I read Picturing Frederick Douglass a year and a half ago. It’s great but I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Yes the photos are good. Yes Douglass’s thoughts on photography are wonderfully modern. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to comment on.

It was only upon reading Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths that I realized why I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Douglass—both in his lectures and his photographs—focuses a lot on the image itself. What it means to make them. What it means to sit for them. What it means to look at them. He does not talk much about the photographs as objects, he thinks of them as texts. While I find those discussions interesting, they’re not what really get me excited.

I enjoy photographs as objects and illustrations. I love thinking about how we use them and how they function in society. Enduring Truths is about how people used photographs in the mid-19th century. How they were made. How they were purchased. How they were sold and collected and saved. It’s fascinating stuff—even more so given my return to baseball cards—which captures the beginning of photographs as currency, not just personal images or texts.

That Sojourner Truth sustained herself financially through selling photos of herself* means that the issues of copyright, production (and reproduction), branding, etc. are just as important as the actual content of the image. Grigsby does a masterful job at explaining how copyright law had to change to adjust for photography—especially in terms of choosing whether to prioritize the photographer or the sitter in terms of ownership—and how Truth’s decision to brand her cards with a copyrighted slogan represents an additional level of rights assertion over the fluidity of the situation.

*at 50¢ a pop which adjusts to ~$10.00 per photo today. Which seems both like a lot but is also the amount for a single Topps Now card.

Grigsby also gets into how the cards are made—especially the way that photography had to adjust for taking photos of dark skin—, the time frames involved, the quantities purchased, and the way they’re taxed by the government as a way of describing the culture of carte de visite (CdV) creation and collecting. They’re not exactly cheap because you have to order multiple copies—tintypes are still more affordable for lower-income people—but they’re cheap enough that at a certain middle-class level you could afford to not just make your own but acquire other peoples’ too. You had to purchase your own cards and it’s notable that Sojourner Truth purchased up to a hundred at a time when most people were purchasing maybe a dozen.

Where Grigsby outdoes herself though is in bringing in paper currency and autograph collecting as parallel developments which deserve to be seen as part of burgeoning CdV photography culture.

At the same time photography is coming into its own as a mass culture phenomenon, autograph collecting is also developing. Put these together—sometimes literally with either signed CdVs or CdVs of signatures—and we see the beginning of celebrity culture where we can traffic in both collectible images and something indicating a personal touch.

Photography, from its very beginning, has been tied up with celebrity culture and assignations of “value.” For Grigsby to compare it with paper money, both in terms of how they develop at the same point in history and how fraught the discussion about who should be depicted on the money has always been* is fantastic. I love, LOVE her description of both photography and paper currency as “reverse alchemy” where precious metals are transformed into paper.

*There’s a reason the US passed a law to prohibit anyone who was alive from appearing on money.

But it’s more than just the idea that paper is worth something. It’s the idea that images are intended to circulate and through their circulation they take on lives which are outside the control of the sitters or the photographers. As a photographer, I love how Douglass’s lectures make me think about why I’m taking photos. But as someone who loves to look at photos, it’s in the life of the images and how we consume them—or try and direct that consumption like Truth did with her assertions of copyright—that fascinates me.

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