One of the first African-American daguerreotypists, Augustus Washington was born in Trenton, New Jersey in either 1820 or 1821 to a one-time slave father and a South Asian mother. Christian Washington was the proprietor of a Trenton oyster eatery, and after the death of his wife shortly after his son's birth, he remarried. Young Augustus was an activist at an early age, attending New York's Oneida Institute, which was operated by antislavery and anti-colonialist Beriah Green. He was also active in various abolitionist and temperance movements in Brooklyn, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, and wrote for an early African-American newspaper, the Colored American, from 1837 to 1841.
Mr. Washington's career as a daguerreotypist was motivated more by financial desperation than artistic passion as he was seeking to generate some quick income to pay for his Dartmouth College tuition in 1843. Unfortunately, his photography did not allow him to continue his Dartmouth education beyond his freshman year. However, after a brief stint as a teacher, he opened a daguerreotype studio in Hartford in 1846 to much greater success. Initially, his clientele consisted of the Hartford white elite, but in 1847, he would make a daguerreotype that would reflect his personal ideology. At the time, abolitionist John Brown was a polarizing figure. He was either revered or despised, depending upon one's views on slavery. Mr. Washington's daguerreotype provided little psychological insight into this enigmatic man, but the portrait did serve to humanize the man and his passion for his cause. His haunting stare, the worry lines above his brow and his raised hand suggest he is pledging allegiance to the abolition of slavery. This remains Mr. Washington's most famous daguerreotype.
In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which placed the freedom of all African Americans in jeopardy. Mr. Washington wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times, in which he decried the social status education African Americans were being consistently denied. He was growing more discontented with American society, and after marrying Cordelia Aiken in 1850 and fathering three children, he began searching for another country to call home. Despite winning a silver medal for his daguerreotypes by the Hartford County Agricultural Society in 1852, Mr. Washington closed his prosperous studio shortly thereafter, and sailed for the West African coastal nation of Liberia with his wife and young children.
Mr. Washington's Liberian studio was an immediate success, and the diversity of style and choice of subjects in his daguerreotypes reflect his professional liberation. He chose to photograph a profile of Liberian President Stephen Benson, and his portraits of the Liberian senate were less posed than his more stiffly posed American subjects. However, when Mr. Washington's once thriving business began stalling, he tried to expand his market to other African nations such as Gambia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. When he ran out of supplies, he attempted to place orders with U.S. agents, but the delay of several months in receiving them further damaged his business.
This prompted Mr. Washington to supplement his daguerreotype income by operating a large sugarcane farm along the St. Paul River. Employing more than 50 workers, Mr. Washington's foray into agriculture saved him from financial ruin. He also became involved in Liberia's political affairs, serving in various capacities in the House and Senate. He also owned and edited the New Era newspaper. Augustus Washington died at his home in Monrovia, Liberia on June 7, 1875. More than sixty of Mr. Washington's daguerreotypes are still in existence and can be found in private collections, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.
2012 The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 154-
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1472-1474.
2012 Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African-American Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), pp. 101-102.
Images published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US
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