28 February 2007

Face out of time

"Slave Boy Brought to Waterbury from Bucks Hill by Aunt Ella Johnson's Second Husband (Whelan)"

Ninth-plate ambrotype, circa 1855

I found this image quite by chance at an online archive. We're told that the identification was from a pencil inscription found behind the picture. A community named Bucks Hill is located in Pennsylvania, where this ambrotype was found. The inscription suggests this boy might have been freed and brought North, perhaps by abolitionists in Pennsylvania or Connecticut.

Documented photographs of slaves are very rare. Because ambrotypes are each made individually in the camera, this photograph is unique. It has never been published.

Because of the long exposure times, the faces in photographs of this vintage don't often have this subtlety of expression. His jaw is firm and possibly proud or even resentful, but the eyes are more ambivalent and suggest vulnerability. This is a great portrait in any time, and considering the technical limitations of the medium in 1855, it is remarkable.

His is a face out of time, timeless.

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