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Hidden Witness: African American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War 
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Product Details 
128 pages 
St. Martin's Press 
Published 1999 
The image is striking: A woman gazes serenely at the camera, baby cradled in her arms in classic Madonna-and-child pose. More striking is the fact that the sitters are black, and the photograph dates from 1860. Few photographs from the mid-19th century feature African Americans, enslaved or free. Those that do are often staged and reflect the biases of the photographer or the printmaker who published them. Others, however, provide glimpses of daily life before the abolition of slavery. 
Renowned collector of early photographs Jackie Napolean Wilson has compiled 70 such images in Hidden Witness. Each photograph--whether an outdoor scene, where slaves are afterthoughts in the frame, so-called Mammy portraits of slaves holding white children, studio portraits of proud freemen and women--is accompanied by a brief explanation, contextualizing the image and speculating on the nature of the pictured relationships. Some of the subjects are famous, such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; others, though unknowns, carry a force of their own: the exuberant grin of the prizewinning boxer, the proud stance of a Union soldier, the quiet dignity of a slave nurse. A handsome addition to the history of African Americans and photography. --Sunny Delaney  
From Library Journal 
Hidden Witness consists of reproductions of 69 photographs--almost all from attorney Wilson's private collection as well as a few from the Getty Museum's holdings--that depict African Americans in the 1840s, 1850s, and early 1860s. Most of the photos are formal studio portraits, but others are outdoor scenes. The commentary by Wilson accompanying each photo is more personal reaction and interpretation than conventional scholarship. Something of the difficult lives and restrictive environment in... read more  
Book Description 
Whether as slaves or as freedmen, African-Americans were virtually invisible in American history during the l9th century. Although photography was introduced to this country in l840, precious few images of African-Americans survive today. Even after the Civil War there were not many African-American photographers, and very few black people had the time, money or freedom for a portrait sitting. Consequently, little photographic evidence remains to bear witness to the lives of four and a half million Americans of African descent. 
Jackie Napolean Wilson, whose own grandfather was born a slave in South Carolina between l853 and l855, has assembled the most comprehensive and significant collection of such images ever brought together in one place. The concrete reality reflected in daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes presents these men and women in situations and attire that bring the truth of their daily lives much closer to us. Such scenes of maternal affection, matrimony, friendship, war and the grim reality of the master/slave relationship help focus our perception of the African- American experience in America in ways not otherwise available to the modern reader. Among these images is the only picture of Abraham Lincoln in the company of an African-American and the earliest known daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (circa 1843). 
Often anonymous, these photographers have left us a mirror, focussing distant light on the past of African-Americans in this country and putting an often invisible people on the historical record once and for all time.
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