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Augustus Washington

Augustus Washington (1820/21 1875) is one of the few African American daguerreotypists whose work has been identified and whose career has been documented. The son of a former slave, Washington was born in Trenton, New Jersey. As a youth, he embraced the abolitionist movement and struggled to obtain an education, studying at both the Oneida Institute and Kimball Union Academy before entering Dartmouth College in 1843.

Washington learned to make daguerreotypes during his freshman year to offset his college expenses. Despite the success of this enterprise, he could not keep pace with his debts. He left Dartmouth in 1844, moving to Hartford, Connecticut, where he taught in a school for black students. Two years later, he opened one of Hartford's first daguerrean galleries. Offering portraits ranging in price from $.50 to $10, Washington attracted a broad clientele, and by the early 1850s was regarded as one of the city's foremost daguerreotypists. But despite his success, Washington worried about the future. Convinced that emancipation alone would not remove the barriers that American society imposed upon its black citizens, he came to regard resettlement in the West African nation of Liberia as the best course of action. Accompanied by his wife and two small children, Washington sailed for Africa in November 1853.

Once in Liberia, Washington opened a daguerrean studio and prospered. He later enlarged the scope of his business by traveling to Sierra Leone, the Gambia, and Senegal, operating temporary studios in each. However, Washington soon became convinced that his future lay in developing Liberia's agricultural resources. He acquired extensive property along the St. Paul River and in time became one of Liberia's principal sugarcane growers. He also took part in the nation's political affairs, serving in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The last reference to Washington's work as a daguerreotypist dates from 1858. Washington never regretted his decision to immigrate to Liberia, and when he died in Monrovia on June 7, 1875, his death was mourned as "a severe loss to Western Africa."


African American Photographers

African Americans were pioneers in the medium of photography. Jules Lyon, originally a lithographer, moved to New Orleans from his native France in 1837 and began producing daguerreotypes there in 1840, one year after the invention of the process. He lived in New Orleans until his death, and much of his work features the city's architecture and portraits of its leaders and people. Lyon was also a successful painter (exhibiting at the 1833 Exposition of Paris) and an art teacher.

Many of his African American artist peers also understood the new medium's power to create a comprehensive visual legacy and provide support for enlightened social philosophies. They and their successors used photography to establish a collective identity, from early portraiture of free persons of color, through photography's fundamental role in the creation of the "New Negro" ideal, to its use in documentary and journalistic work. African American photographers were instrumental in motivating cultural change and defining the significance of the beginnings of the civil rights and black power movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Marches, meetings, rallies, and leaders such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were documented by the leading African American photojournalists and documentarians of the day.

This was also a time when many African American photographers began to place themselves in the greater context of a worldwide African diaspora, understanding the American civil rights movement as part of a much larger and older struggle for independence and equal rights. These decades were also a time of new artistic approaches. Moving beyond the traditional goal of objective reportage, some photographers used the power of narrative and metaphor to expand the awareness of the public, combating the negative stereotyping found in mainstream media culture. During this dangerous yet invigorating time, photographers sought to be "graphic historians," creating a collective biography of African American people that would empower them in their struggle for civil rights, while at the same time providing evidence of the diversity of their individual histories, values, and goals.

The 1980s and 1990s have seen African American photographers deconstructing and reconstructing their personal histories and public personas. Both the symbolic and expressive imagery of the works produced in the last two decades offer a different visual paradigm. Many artists seek to reveal and weaken the power that rigid conceptions of race and gender hold in our own culture, beginning with their own personal experience. Paralleling the forms of mass communication that compete to define American society at the end of the twentieth century, these artists use strategies such as juxtaposing text with image and mixing fact with fantasy to challenge the viewer's assumptions about artistic authority and authenticity.


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