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Pictures, Words and Music

Pictures, like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on the wall, in the best light, and for the rest allow them to speak for themselves…

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist, author, and activist Frederick Douglass invented himself. After his escape from slavery, he chose February 14, 1818 as his birthday, decided on a surname, and accepted the challenge of his life’s work; the fight to end slavery and insure equality. He discovered that photography could be an invaluable weapon in that fight. Douglass toured the world, and after his lectures he sat for the portraits that made him an icon. By the late nineteenth century greater numbers of Black Americans could chose portraits as an affirmation of their lives and families. Ultimately the medium would record work, leisure, and the continuous organizing that nurtured the Modern Civil Rights Movement. “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction,” Douglass once wrote. This bicentennial anniversary is an invitation to reflect upon the impact of poets, prophets, reformers, and their pictures.

With images by James van der Zee, Philippe Halsman, George Warren, and other photographers who captured families, neighborhoods, politicians and celebrities, Pictures, Words and Music salutes these figures as they shaped the world Douglass could only imagine aided by photography.

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