Tanya Sheehan, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, has contributed an essay to a new book published by Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Aperture, To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes (2020).
The book focuses on a group of early photographs of Africans and African Americans taken in 1850 by Joseph T. Zealy of South Carolina and commissioned by Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had hoped the pictures of the enslaved people, who were posed frontally and in profile and in various states of undress, would support his ideas on the origins of human diversity, and specifically the racist theory of polygenesis.
The daguerreotypes were rediscovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1976 and have since inspired much scholarship and controversy. Sheehan was invited to participate in a workshop hosted by the Peabody Museum to stimulate new critical reflections on the photographs, and she contributed an essay to the resulting volume edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis. Her essay considers the deep connections between early photography and science and argues that they help account for Agassiz’s selection of a seemingly ordinary portrait photographer to support his work.