Researching the Zealy Daguerreotypes

The daguerreotypes of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty are among the most sensitive images in the collections of the Peabody Museum and are records of critical importance to the history of the United States in the nineteenth century. Rediscovered in storage at the museum in 1976, these fifteen unique photographs were made in 1850 in Columbia, South Carolina, by Joseph T. Zealy. They were commissioned by Dr. Robert Gibbes for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz.

When the discovery was announced in June 1977 in an American Heritage article by Elinor Reichlin, the museum’s archivist, the story was picked up newspapers around the country. The images of the seven enslaved individuals—five men and two women—have since become some of the museum’s most frequently requested images. Scholars and artists in the U.S. and around the world have discussed, interpreted, and reimagined them in countless venues—from academic literature to the popular media, on websites, in films, and as new works of artistic appropriation—as signifiers of race, slavery, photography, gender, power, the Black body, and anthropological imagery. The power of these photographs—encapsulating as they do both the dignity of individual human lives and the ugly history of slavery and racism—continues to inspire and demand close scrutiny and difficult reflection.

At the request of the Peabody Museum, the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University Library undertook professional conservation of the daguerreotypes between 2007 and 2009, a process that led to the development of new conditions for safe viewing of these fragile objects by researchers and students. Equally importantly, it became clear to Peabody curators that the daguerreotypes demanded sensitive ethical and intellectual contextualization as they became more widely viewed. This need was the impetus for a multidisciplinary research project that resulted in the new book To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes.

The project began with a small Radcliffe Exploratory Seminar in November 2012. Led by historian John Stauffer and visual anthropologist Ilisa Barbash of Harvard, the seminar was attended by Geoffrey Belknap, Robin Bernstein, David Blight, Janet Browne, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Rex Ellis, Harlan Greene, Arthur Kleinman, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Sydney Nathans, Molly Rogers, Manisha Sinha, Deborah Willis, and John Wood. Building on Molly Rogers’s path-breaking study Delia’s Tears (2010), the participants generated a list of topics related to the daguerreotypes that they wanted to explore and determined to meet again to review and discuss drafts of their articles.

A follow-up Radcliffe Workshop convened in 2015, again chaired by Stauffer and Barbash. Some participants in the 2012 seminar had gone onto other commitments, and several new scholars joined the project, including Matthew Fox-Amato, Gregg Hecimovich, Christoph Irmscher, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, and Tanya Sheehan. This stimulating and collaborative working session resulted in a firm commitment by all participants to contribute articles to a new publication on the daguerreotypes, which examines the images, their creation, the people behind the camera, and the people in the frame, through various lenses of American history, art history, anthropology, and the history of science. One unique aspect of the volume is the inclusion of short essays written by students in Robin Bernstein’s Harvard course African American Theatre and Performance; Ian Askew, Keziah Clarke, Jonathan Karp, Eliza Blair Mantz, William Pruitt, and Reggie St. Lewis describe in moving terms their responses on viewing the daguerreotypes in the Peabody Museum. To provide new visualizations of the physical and social landscape of the South, the Peabody commissioned contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems to create a gallery of photography for the volume. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was invited to write the book’s foreword.

Upon submission of the book manuscript, the Peabody Museum Press forged a co-publishing agreement with Aperture, the distinguished multiplatform publisher and center for the international photography community. The pathbreaking 2016 publication of the Vision and Justice issue of Aperture Magazine serves as an inspiring companion to the themes explored in To Make Their Own Way in the World.