"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, June 05, 2006

The John Brown Daguerreotypes
Insights into the imagery of history by Jean Libby

“The often-published copies and prints of John Brown take on new meaning when their daguerreian history is revealed,” writes veteran researcher and scholar, Jean Libby, in a ground-breaking article in The Daguerreian Annual (2002-03). She should know: she’s been on the trail of historical documents and images for years, and after extensive research has published her findings in a 20-page article that surveys extant daguerreotypes and other images related to John Brown.

Libby’s article not only provides a detailed historical and chronological framework for the images, but gives specific research information for each daguerreotype, including the findings of forensic analyst, Eileen Barrow, of Louisiana State University, and the insights of Sally Pierce, curator of the Boston Athenaeum, and John Lawlor, Jr., a teacher and researcher in this field.

The daguerreotype process is named for Louis Daguerre, who invented a way of capturing photographic images on coated metal plates. In the late 1840s and 1850s, daguerreotye studios were prominent, and Brown sat for a good number of such portraits. He not only used these images to preserve his memory as did most people, but also to promote his cause, a strategy that other activists also employed. While Brown’s strategy tends to be distorted in John Stauffer’s Black Hearts of Men (2002), Libby puts the story of the Brown daguerreotypes back on track in her seminal study.

From his first daguerreotype taken at the time he was a wool merchant in Springfield, Massachusetts, to the famous bearded image taken only months before the Harper’s Ferry raid, Libby makes painstaking documentation of each image, including an often used picture of the “Free State Battery,” an image held in the Kansas State Historical Society. Libby was the first one to identify the men in this famous “cannon picture” as Brown’s Kansas associates, including his son, Owen.


Libby’s work is not only rich in documentation and analysis, but dramatically insightful in a number of respects, including what might be called the “bearded Brown” controversy. She details the background of the famous image of the long-bearded Brown, taken in Boston prior to his departure for Maryland and Virginia in 1859. Libby discusses why the image has been attributed to different daguerreotypists, and also how a variety of derivative images have been made from this now popular image—interesting in itself, since every other image in existence is of a clean-shaven Brown.

Even more dramatic—and certainly more cogent with respect to answering Brown’s detractors—is Libby’s findings on the so-called “mad” picture of Brown, traditionally attributed to J. A. Whipple and J. W. Black of Boston. Surveying the evidence of Brown’s movements in relation to his colleagues, Libby skillfully concludes the image was probably made in early 1858. More importantly, based upon Barrow’s forensic analysis, along with the perspectives of curators Pierce of the Boston Athenaeum and Mary Ison of the Library of Congress, Libby convincingly argues that this is not a “mad” image at all—but rather evidence that the battle-worn and sickly Brown had likely experienced a mild stroke in 1857.

Libby not only corrects the biased assumptions of Brown’s enemies, but shows that his beard not only served as a disguise, but also had a cosmetic purpose in diminishing the appearance of the drooping left side of his face (daguerreotypes are reverse images). “Twelve known extant Brown photographic portraits were originally daguerreotypes,” Libby concludes.” This is an article for your files! ▪ See Jean Libby’s website at www.alliesforfreedom.com.
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Jean Libby is a researcher, teacher, writer, and photographer. She currently edits the Viet-Am Review. For decades she has done extensive work on the John Brown story and its relation to the African American community. Notable among her works is Black Voices from Harpers Ferry (1979), the definitive analysis of Osborne Anderson's 1861 testimony about the raid, and perhaps the most important study of the same event in this generation; John Brown Mysteries (1999); From Slavery to Salvation: The Autobiography of Rev. Thomas W. Henry of the A.M.E. Church (1994); and the dynamic video production, Mean to Be Free: John Brown’s Black Nation Campaign (1986, with Roy Thomas). She resides in Palo Alto, California, with her husband, Ralph Libby.

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