Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

A Flag Of Freedom?

Since photography’s inception, there has been a strong impetus to think that it records and presents images with accuracy unattainable to the naked eye and the rapidly processing human brain. Certainly many pictures presented in a journalistic mode are created to offer viewers evidence and description in tandem with, and often beyond, what words and the artist’s pen or paint can describe. But by itself, a photograph sometimes asks more questions than it answers. One of my favorite images from the Photographic History Collection does just that.

Smithsonian ambrotype i i

Courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History hide caption

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Smithsonian ambrotype

Courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History

In 2005, the National Museum of American History acquired this ambrotype of a washerwoman for the Union Army in Richmond, Va. On her dress is pinned an American flag that was hand-painted after the image was made and before it was cased. The description of the photograph comes from the back of a gallery dealer’s business card, on which he had transcribed the text from a disintegrating piece of paper inside the case.

Though there are many anonymous, unremarkable portraits in homes, libraries and museums, this photograph emerges during a tumultuous time in American history, and black women were not often depicted in this formal way. Dozens of questions race through my mind, beginning with, what is the date of the image? If the location is accurate, the Union Army was in the Richmond area by 1862. The ambrotype process, however, had greatly fallen out of favor about a decade earlier. But it was certainly possible to make ambrotypes, as they are a wet-collodion negative (used from the late 1850s until the dry-plate in the 1880s) and simply backed by a dark piece of paper or fabric, or shellacked as in this case. Or was the photograph taken earlier, but the woman worked in Richmond later? Who wrote the original description? Why wasn’t the subject’s name recorded?

The flag especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

I suspect she did not own the image. It seems to me that if it passed down through her family, someone along the line would have indicated a relationship to her, if not her name. But that leaves the question of who did own it, and there isn’t anything but far-flung speculation for that answer.

This photograph was not made casually or by accident. Before she even sat for the camera, her dress was clean and pressed, and her hair coiffed. The pinning of the flag, and its coloring and the pink tint on her cheeks, are deliberate actions. The woman holds herself steady, with pride, perhaps assisted by a hidden head brace, and by her arm on the draped table. She holds our gaze with her eyes, which do not reflect happiness or relaxation, but seem to signal a bit of trepidation.

I often wish I could call out to sitters in photographs, sort of Harry Potter–style, and question them. If only this picture could talk. What would this laundress tell us about her life and the circumstances around which this image was made?

Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.

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