On Monday night I was up until 11:30 pm watching Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People on PBS. It was not a wise move given my morning job; however, I am an avid fan of documentaries and this one quickly placed itself in my top ten list of outstanding films. I was captivated from the beginning until the end. I learned that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th Century and Sojourner Truth used photography to support herself by selling and even wearing her own portraits. This film takes you on a journey from slavery to the present day focusing on the emergence of blacks in photography, what these images portrayed, the stereotypes that were brought forth, and the rise of black photographers along with their missions and passion behind photography.
As the film progressed, the photographers (historians, if you asked me) began to interpret the photo of a man named Gordon. This image was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1864 and highly circulated among abolitionist groups. have seen the image countless times in American history books. In fact, if you google the term ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ multiple images of Gordon appears. He sits with his back to the camera, his head turned to the photo’s left, and his hand posed, yet rested on his hip. In full view is Gordon’s back marred with keloids (raised scars) from brutal whippings.
So why am I focusing on Gordon? Because this documentary made me aware of one simple thing that I failed to notice before–his name, Gordon.
Who was Gordon?
Gordon was an escaped slave from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the fall of 1862, he was severely beaten by his overseer, who was later discharged by his owner, spending the next few months recovering from his wounds. This was according to one source; however, I speculate the scars came from countless beatings. It was during this time in which Gordon devised a plan to enslavement. In March 1863, he fled towards the Mississippi River rubbing onions on his body to distract the hunting dogs chasing after him. Ten days later he reached Union soldiers stationed in the city. At this camp, Gordon enlisted in the Union army and it was during his medical examination where military doctors took note of the scars covering his back. Photographer William D. McPherson and his assistant Oliver Gordon were present as well and asked Gordon to pose for a picture to show the nation the harsh treatment he received.
The original photograph of this runaway slave named Gordon was taken in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was being treated by Union medical staff prior to his enlistment in a Yankee regiment of Colored Troops. This image, showing the severe scarring on Gordon’s back-the result from repeated whippings by his master-was engraved for the July 4, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Here was visual proof of abolitionists’ claims of the cruelties of slavery, especially those of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Gordon’s image was widely copied and circulated as a carte de visite, much as today’s trading cards, by photography houses throughout the North. The copy carte de visite displayed here is the only existing version known to have been produced by the Mathew Brady Studio.
National Portrait Gallery
This image of Gordon gained popularity amongst abolitionist groups and newspapers representing the “indictment of slavery”.
This Card Photography should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye.
The New York Independent
On July 4, 1863, Harper’s Weekly published the image within the article, “A Typical Image”, alongside two other portraits of Gordon. As the film noted, these images showed the transformation of the slave into a man, which would be completely wiped out as a result of Jim Crow. Gordon went on to serve within the United States Colored Infantry during the American Civil War fighting against Confederate soldiers. Sources debated which troop he fought within as well as his role in the war. Without his last name, I could not search for his enlistment record, but what scholars do know is that he enlisted. His image became a representation of the trials of the slave in America holding a significant impact even today. May his name be known and remembered.
Until the next post,