John Brown’s Famous Photograph

An 1840s image captures an extremist’s fervor

John Brown daguerreotype
From childhood on, abolitionist John Brown (in a c.1847 daguerreotype taken by Augustus Washington) had sworn "eternal war with slavery." National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps more than any other American historical figure, the militant abolitionist John Brown embodies the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Brown’s zeal at the Pottawatomie Massacre, where five pro-slavery Kansans were taken from their homes and murdered, and his botched raid on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, beginning October 16, 1859, made him a pariah in the South and helped precipitate the secessionist movement that led to the Civil War. But in non-slave states, his execution on December 2, 1859, was marked by the tolling of church bells and martyrdom within the abolitionist movement. In a well-known painting completed circa 1884, many years after the Civil War, my great-great-uncle, Philadelphia artist Thomas Hovenden, depicted Brown as a secular saint on his way to the gallows.

Given Brown’s passionate opposition to slavery, it’s not surprising that his first photographic likeness was created by an African-American portraitist, Augustus Washington. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery purchased the daguerreotype at auction in 1996. Ann Shumard, NPG curator of photographs, describes it as “one of the treasures of the collection in all media. To have Brown daguerreotyped by an African-American is extraordinary.”

The portrait, taken in Washington’s Hartford, Connecticut, studio in 1846 or 1847, exudes an intensity consistent with the subject’s fanaticism. He appears very much as one might expect—angry and determined. In the image, Brown raises his right hand, as if taking an oath; in the other hand, he holds a banner thought to be the flag of the Subterranean Pass-Way, his militant alternative to the Underground Railroad.

According to Shumard, who also curated a 1999 exhibition of Washington’s work, the photographer made at least three images of Brown that day in Hartford. One, owned by Brown’s descendants until 2007, offers a glimpse of the abolitionist in a somewhat less intimidating stance—gazing contemplatively into the camera; it was acquired two years ago by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Another, which remains lost, is described as a picture of Brown with his young African-American assistant, Thomas Thomas. The dauntingly fierce NPG portrait, Shumard says, “was meant to serve as a symbol of Brown’s determination to abolish slavery.” As is often the case with photography, all is not what it seems. Daguerreotypes are mirror images, so to achieve his effect, Washington would have positioned Brown with his left hand raised and his right hand holding the banner.

There’s no record that the picture was ever published, says Shumard, until 1921, more than 70 years after it was made, by the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society. “At the time Brown sat for Washington,” she says, “he was not by any means a public figure—he was a wool broker. There wouldn’t have been any reason to publish it, even by the standard means of an artist’s representation. The picture, so significant now, was really intended as a personal testament to Brown’s commitment to his cause.”

The daguerreotype process, the first photographic process to be commercially successful, was introduced by French artist Louis Daguerre in 1839 and by the time of the Brown portrait required only a few seconds to produce an image. A mirror-polished, silver-coated plate was made sensitive to light by exposure to iodine vapors, and the images were developed using mercury vapor (which posed a major, albeit unknown, health risk for those who made them).

The process yielded extremely fragile images that could easily be destroyed if mishandled or improperly cleaned; they also tarnished if exposed to air for an extended period. Properly sealed, however, they can last almost indefinitely. “We’re lucky that the John Brown portrait is still in its original case,” Shumard says, “and looks much as it did when it was first made.”

Augustus Washington was born in 1820 or 1821 in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of a former slave. He attended Dartmouth College, and he learned to make daguerreotypes to earn money for his tuition. For financial reasons, he dropped out of school and a few years later established a portrait studio in Hartford. According to Shumard, several African-American portraitists were working at the time. “The technique was new and photographic portraits were much in demand,” she says, “so there was a chance for African-Americans in the North to get into the business.”

Although Washington met with success in Hartford, he grew pessimistic about the future for African-Americans in the United States and, in 1853, emigrated to Liberia. There he made portraits of American émigrés and government dignitaries. Once the daguerreo­type was eclipsed by newer technologies, Washington gave up photography and served in the Liberian Senate. He died in Monrovia in 1875, sixteen years after his most polarizing subject.

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.

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