It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations.


—Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Pictures,” December 3, 1861

Introduced in 1839, photography revolutionized how ordinary people saw themselves and others. In the two decades following its invention, photography spread rapidly across the United States and played a crucial role in shaping concepts of identity, family, citizenship, and race. For African Americans in particular, photographic portraits offered a means of self-representation and empowerment. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass—who was himself the most photographed man of the 19th century—consistently championed the medium for its capacity to affirm the humanity and dignity of its sitters and challenge dehumanizing, racist stereotypes. Other Black Americans, including native Virginian James Presley Ball (1825–1904), practiced and shaped the medium from its earliest years.

At the same time, photography was also employed to support slavery and racial segregation. Slaveholders commissioned photographs of enslaved nannies or servants that affirmed a white supremacist social order and projected myths of “benevolent” bondage. On occasion, photographs were used to identify and pursue fugitive slaves.

Drawn from the collection of Dennis O. Williams and presented in the Photography Gallery, some 25 portraits of Black Americans—some enslaved, others free—offer a powerful and poignant way to explore these complicated histories. This installation, which includes daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and early works on paper made from the 1840s through the 1880s, features a small selection of work by Ball. This installation was conceived to complement the upcoming exhibition Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass.

A Powerful Influence is curated by Dr. Sarah Kennel, VMFA’s Aaron Siskind Curator of Photography and Director of the Raysor Center.

Civil War Soldier (detail), 1863–65, American, 19th century, tintype. Collection of Dennis O. Williams

Young Girl in a Gingham Dress (detail), ca. 1855, American, 19th century, daguerreotype. Collection of Dennis O. Williams

Andy, Mary E. Hendra, and Willie (detail), ca. 1850, American, 19th century, daguerreotype. Collection of Dennis O. Williams