Researchers at the University of Rochester Work to Uncover How a Rare Photo of Frederick Douglass Wound up in Syracuse

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Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous abolitionists of the 19th century, is also one of the most widely photographed. However, a mysterious daguerreotype of Douglass is stumping historians. Now, researchers at the University of Rochester are trying to figure out how the early photograph of Douglass ended up in Syracuse.

In late January, the Onandaga Historical Association loaned the full-plate daguerrotype to the River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester. A daguerreotype is a photograph chemically printed on a piece of metal and was considered the world’s first commercially printed photographic process.

While nine known daguerreotypes of Douglass were printed in his 77-year lifespan, the photograph owned by the historical association is unusual, because it is the only known full-plate daguerreotype of the famous abolitionist.

Its origins are also considered mysterious. According to Syracuse.com, the image was given to the historical association by the Syracuse Public Library in 1954. However, no one knew when or where the daguerreotype was made or how the library came to own it.

Tom Hunter, a museum collection curator from the Onandaga Historical Association, said that the photo had been misidentified as a photograph of Jermain Wesley Loguen — a well-known Syracuse abolitionist and pastor at Syracuse’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Nearly one in four Americans rate photographs among the most valuable pieces of documented information they could own. And when it comes to this particular image of Douglass, it transcends average value.

Measuring at 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches, the full-size daguerreotype is a rarity. Because each daguerreotype was a unique image, they were expensive to make. Therefore, most photo studios divided copper plates into halves or quarters, resulting in reduced image sizes.

Meanwhile, the full-size daguerreotype of Douglass is immaculate in detail, to the point where slight blemishes and blood vessels can be seen on his face. Additionally, the camera’s lens — intentionally focused on Douglass’ face — was so tightly focused that one is able to see the reflection in his eyes of the studio’s skylight.

But despite its magnificence, no one quite knows how the treasure ended up in Syracuse.

Ralph Wiegandt, research conservator and visiting scientist at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, believes that the image was made around 1850, based on Douglass’ approximate age in the photograph. However, he feels that it was very unlikely that the photograph was taken in Syracuse.

In the 1850s, the daguerreotype was cutting edge, expensive technology. According to Wiengandt, no one in Syracuse would have been equipped or knowledgeable enough to create the immaculately detailed portrait. Rather, only big cities such as Boston, New York, or Philadelphia would have been able to master such a feat.

What researchers do know, however, is that the full-plate daguerreotype was taken before 1851. They know this because that was the year an engraving from the daguerreotype was published in the first edition of the book “Autographs for Freedom.” The engraving is a laterally reversed image of the full-sized image ​and was engraved by John Chester Buttre.

This means that Buttre had to have had the portrait in his possession at some point. As for how it ended up in Syracuse? Only time will tell.

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