U-M’s New Virtual Exhibit Explores Black Empowerment Through Photography

’Framing Identity’ is inspired by Frederick Douglass’ view on picture-making

framing identity - Arabella Chapman
Arabella Chapman, pictured above, was a Black music teacher from New York. Images from her family photo albums appear in Framing Identity. // Photograph courtesy of Arabella Chapman carte-de-visite albums (1878-[1890s]), William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan (Finding Aid).
With its latest virtual exhibit, the University of Michigan is exploring how 19th century Black Americans used the power of photography to express their identity and grow their communities.

Now available for view online, Framing Identity: Representations of Empowerment and Resilience in the Black Experience is inspired by Frederick Douglass’ view on picture-making. Often considered the most photographed American of the 19th century, the abolitionist once said that picture-making is the secret to poets, performers, and prophets’ success.

“As an accomplished writer and orator, Douglass would often state how photography was an innovative tool that allowed a person to construct an empowered self-image,” says Framing Identity curator Samantha Hill, a graduate student at the university’s School of Information and a fellow at U-M’s William L. Clements Library, in a press release. “Douglass also connected photography to the evolution of a community — how a single image can incorporate our creativity, accomplishments, as well as obstacles that inspire us to connect to humanity’s shared existence.”

Framing identity - frederick douglass
This souvenir photograph of Frederick Douglass, taken in Chicago by Samuel M. Fassett, was kept safe in one of Chapman’s albums that contained images of famous people. // Photograph courtesy of Arabella Chapman carte-de-visite albums (1878-[1890s]), William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan (Finding Aid).
The exhibit explores what type of power everyday Black Americans were able to cultivate through picture-making. Framing Identity features illustrations from published works and original photographs, including frontispieces of well-known Black authors, images from New York music teacher Arabella Chapman’s 1870s photo albums, the work of Black photographers the Goodridge Brothers and Harvey C. Jackson, and portraits of Black Civil War soldiers. The exhibit also highlights The Colored American Magazine, one of the first publications to feature stories by Black writers.

These materials are accompanied by text that provides context on each image. An introduction to Framing Identity also gives more insight into Douglass’ philosophy and how it connects to the exhibit’s concept.

Framing Identity will be discussed during a free digital event at 10 a.m. on Feb. 19. A part of the Clements Bookworm history webinar series, the event is open to the public, but guests must register online ahead of time to join.

To view the exhibit online, click here.