The history of American photography starts in Philadelphia in the 1830s when it was used by medical researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Within decades of its introduction, photography swiftly became a transformative tool that was powerfully used in politics and society.

Matthew Fox-Amato’s examination of its early influence in “Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America” (Oxford; $39.95) features over 100 color illustrations — including little-studied photographs of slaves, ex-slaves, free African Americans and abolitionists.

Fox-Amato, an assistant professor of history at the University of Idaho, offers rare photographs to create a center of understanding enslavement and the Civil War. From the earliest days of the medium, photos of whites and Blacks, free and enslaved, before and during the Civil War documented 19th-century America.

“Exposing Slavery is a surprising and compelling history of the interconnections between the American embrace of photography in the 1840s and 1850s and rising tensions over slavery,” writes Ann Fabian, president of the Society of American Historians. “This rare marvel of a book shows how enslaved men and women and abolitionists used the medium to express claims to personhood and build a social movement.”

The then-new media technology was embraced by southerners to defend slavery and by abolitionists to strengthen their movement. Former-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass was an early fan of the daguerreotype, an early type of photo, writing four speeches on the medium and sitting for at least 160 portraits during his lifetime.

“Exposing Slavery takes a fresh look at the role of photography in ‘humanizing’ the institution of chattel slavery,” notes Tina Campt, author of “Listening to Images.” “Revisiting the archive of slave photography that haunts contemporary representations of the subjection of black bodies in the 21st century, the book complicates our understanding of the subjects of these images at a moment when digital imaging has become one of the most important tools in the ongoing battle against anti-Black violence. The book provides a significant rebuttal to any assertion that these historical images are simply a reflection of mastery or submission. It tells a very different story that challenges us to look more closely at this troubling and insightful archive.”

The conflicts over human bondage ultimately reshaped the nation, and in turn, altered a scientific curiosity into a political tool that still impacts society today.

In March, the Associated Press reported on a series of 1850 daguerreotypes taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia.

The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves and were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S.

Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., is suing the Ivy League school demanding that Harvard turn over the photo and pay damages for “shamelessly” exploiting her ancestors. Lanier claims that Renty is her great-great-great grandfather Renty.

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

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