Some of the photos were among several distributed in the northern states to aid propaganda in the fight for abolition of slavery.
According to The New York Times
, half of the photographs have never before been seen by the public. They depict many aspects of the conditions of African Americans at the Emancipation.
Many of the photos are studio portraits. They were distributed in the northern states to show that former slaves could become "respectable people" after emancipation.
Ironically, some of the images were also used by supporters of slavery as evidence of its "natural order and orderliness," as some argue to this day.
But they were used mostly for the purpose of promoting the fight for abolition of slavery. The Daily Mail
comments: "... following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the use of photography evolved - eventually being used by black men and women to show off their new, post-slavery looks and to portray their hopes of freedom."
The photos were collated by Dr. Deborah Willis, professor at the department of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and Dr. Barbara Krauthamer, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The publication is the culmination of years of researching in museums and archives around the country. Both Willis and Krauthamer had been deeply impressed by the photo of a slave woman, Dolly, whose fate remains a mystery. The New York Times
reports the photograph had a handwritten caption dated 1863, with a headline offering a reward of "$50" for the return of Dolly to her owner in Augusta Georgia.
The photo provoked the researchers asking the question: "What does freedom look like?"
According to The New York Times
, the publication is the latest in recent projects that have contributed to national discussion of the legacies of the Civil War. The projects include Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and “The Civil War and American Art,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
The researchers have expressed hope that the book will help to extend the photographic record and stimulate fresh discussion about the issues of race and freedom.
Willis says their research revealed new images "that have gone missing from the historical record."
Dr. Willis said: "We wanted a range of images that showed the scope of the thinking about what freedom looked like. We consciously looked for black photographers; we consciously looked for images of women, whose stories have often not been included.”
The researchers said they sought "evocative photographs of everyday life," and tried to compile photos that would serve "a family album" of “the collective African-American experience.”
The photos include images not only of plantation slaves, but also of relatively prosperous black families, black Union soldiers and Emancipation Day celebrations. The photographs include former African American slaves dressed up in their Sunday best for self-images of freedom.
The photos include "before" and "after" images of black families, adults and children, purportedly showing how freedom transforms them from ragamuffins into "respectable" people, albeit in the "well-dressed" and "comported" model of white Americans. Some show mix-blooded African-Americans with light skin tones to evoke sympathy of white northerners.
The images were used by leading abolitionist campaigners such as Frederick Douglas.
According to Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University, “There is a visceral kind of understanding you get from images like these that you don’t get from text." He added, “I do think images like this can be very, very important.”
Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, at the New York Public Library, pointed out that the best known images from the period show African-Americans in dire poverty and danger of being lynched.
The New York Times
, however, notes the fact that the new art and technology of photography was also put to such less honorable uses such as documenting the supposed inferiority of non-white races. The website makes a particular example of "dehumanizing portraits of bare-breasted men and women created for the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, who sought to document racial inferiority."