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Freedom in 3D: Slavery, Memory, and the Photographic Technologies of the U.S. Civil War

Sat, November 11, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Water Tower, Concourse Level West Tower


By the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the self-emancipation of hundreds of formerly enslaved African Americans was already being memorialized by an army of traveling photographers. Photographers like Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George Bernard, Timothy O’ Sullivan, and James Presley Ball produced thousands of war-era photographs, many of which pictured formerly enslaved African Americans who had been freed by the Union army, or who had freed themselves. During the thirty years following the end of the Civil War, these war-era photographs become a part of the post-bellum battle to shape not only Civil War era memory, but also the memory of what emancipation was and what it meant during the rise of what writer and poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, termed “a dastardly new slavery.”

In this paper, I uncover how the rise of state-sponsored Jim Crow laws and white-supremacist social practices ran parallel to the erasure of African Americans’ visual and narrative presence in photographically-mediated narratives about emancipation and the war. I focus, specifically, on the post-bellum re-mixing of two war-era technologies: the magic lantern slide (a photographic slide used to project visual images during lectures or multi-medial performances) and the stereoview (a 3D photographic technology designed to show a single scene to one viewer at a time). Photographic formats like the stereoview and the magic lantern slide enlivened still photographs via the use of multi-medial oratory and performance, optical illusions and special effects, spoken dialogue, and written narrative. Enhanced (or immersive) photographic technologies offered formerly enslaved African Americans opportunities to tell stories about Black agency that inspired political action among Black Southerners; the power of these photographically-mediated narratives lead anti-Black actors to disrupt such efforts through government appeal and vigilante violence. By looking at the ways in which immersive photographic technologies shaped how former slaves’ Civil War era stories were remembered and forgotten, I reveal the role of photographically-mediated storytelling from the Fall of Reconstruction to the rise of Jim Crow.


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