Sojourner Truth’s Photographic Shadow Stretches into the 21st Century

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth with a photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell, on her lap, 1863 (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby)

In the course of her remarkable life, Sojourner Truth (c. 1797 – 1883) sat for photographic portraits on at least 11 occasions. By itself, this fact is significant. As an illiterate former slave, Truth’s humanity and the humanity of all her fellow African Americans was barely acknowledged, let alone celebrated in an artistic form so esteemed as the portrait.

Captioned carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1864
Captioned carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1864 (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby)

"I sell the shadow to support the substance," it reads beneath her portrait. Truth’s sale of her photographic shadow served causes no less significant than personal and collective emancipation.

At the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), the intimate exhibition Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery presents many of the portraits Truth commissioned. Surrounding those images are their context: the complex paper exchange that by turns “justified” the treatment of enslaved Americans and the Confederate cause, and also helped bolster political resistance to institutionalized human bondage.

Twenty-first century image saturation traces its roots directly to photography’s dissemination in the nineteenth century. Though many photographic forms were popular at the time, the cartes de visite -- small cards fitted with miniature portraits -- outstripped daguerreotypes and tintypes. Cartes de visite shaped social exchanges -- they were both collectible objects and an inexpensive means of establishing one’s identity.

Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, c. 1879
Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, c. 1879 (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby)

While only privileged white Americans could afford to commission painted oil portraits, photographic portraits were easy to produce and inexpensive to purchase. Truth marshaled her prescient understanding of this emerging communication and political tool to support abolitionist and feminist efforts, and to claim herself as more than a product of abject circumstances.

Sponsored

Displayed in groupings of three or four objects, the current BAMPFA exhibition comes courtesy of a gift from Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, a UC Berkeley professor. The exhibition, and Grigsby’s companion publication Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadow and Substance, situate Truth’s portraits and their sale within a fresh critical context that includes Civil War-era legal tender, other photographic portraiture and, tellingly, composite cartes de visite featuring disgraced Confederate president Jefferson Davis dressed as a woman and Abraham Lincoln in blackface.

Other cartes de visite feature Civil War veteran and multiple amputee Benjamin Franklin, "redeemed slave child" Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence, and a group of freed children posed as though in a classroom. Grigsby explains that easily-produced and copyrighted cartes de visite were used to raise funds on behalf of a variety of social welfare causes -- as much as they were used for political satire. Paper products were produced and circulated throughout the fractured American territory in service of violently divergent ideological agendas.

Captioned carte de visite (Learning is Wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca & Rosa, Slaves from New Orleans), c. 1864
Captioned carte de visite (Learning is Wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca & Rosa, Slaves from New Orleans), c. 1864 (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby)

Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery opens against the backdrop of a seemingly never-ending presidential election cycle. In its quiet gallery, the exhibition offers a moment to consider how images are politically instrumentalized, and to what ends.

Moreover, it creates space to consider more recent social justice movements -- the Black Panther Party and their revolutionary newspaper, the potency of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, and in her beautifully subversive way, Kimberly Drew's Museum Mammy Instagram feed -- and how they may all be linked to a diminutive Black woman's monumental shadow. Sojourner Truth's shadow (and substance) stretch well into the 21st century.

Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 23. For tickets and more information, visit bampfa.org.