For the last twenty years or so, in whatever city I’ve been living in, I’ve gone to a museum every week. This has been less regular since I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had children. Now I find that, even without them, I go hurriedly and, rather than standing in front of the art and waiting for impressions to form, I take pictures to think over later. Our closest museum is the Fogg Museum, at Harvard, and when I can I go there to look at and photograph the art.
This last visit, two of my photographs—a photograph of a photograph and a photograph of a painting—were of hands: One picture is a detail of a painting by Edgar Degas, showing cotton merchants in New Orleans in 1873; the other is a detail of a carte de visite portrait of Sojourner Truth, taken in 1864.
It wasn’t until after my visit, looking through all the images, that these two twined themselves together and made a mystery.
In the Degas painting, the cotton merchant takes hold of the stuff of his trade. You can’t see the fingers, but you can feel the possession. In the hands you can feel the grasp of the subject and the grasp of the image’s maker. Hands in Degas are expressive about painting itself—they seem to feel paint. They are often blurred, clearly made out of paint, and immersed in it.
Later in life, Degas sometimes painted with his hands, smearing in the background with his thumbs. These hands seem almost a point of entry, a place in the canvas where the painter enters, his hands hovering over the hands we are looking at. And of course he worked on canvas, made from linen or cotton fibers, so that he might also be noticing some kinship between his work and that of his extended family—cotton merchants living in New Orleans. Like the merchant, Degas’s hands grasped the stuff of his trade.
It is not clear to me whether the painted hands, which are a little eerie, recognize in the whorled fibers the cotton over which so many people had been forced to labor and for which so many had died.
In the photograph of Sojourner Truth, her hands are more explicit about this further, coercive, history of work.
When I came home from the Fogg Museum and looked through the pictures I’d taken there, I found a close-up of Sojourner Truth’s face, her eyes magnified by her glasses. At the museum, I missed this distortion, but the face I didn’t know I was seeing must have been part of what convinced me that the photograph was one of rare dignity and power. The ghostliness of photographs is often written about, but in this case the subject herself has brought up the subject.
The photograph was made into a carte de visite, a visiting card, such as one might give to friends, or sell, which was what Sojourner Truth chose to do with the photo. To that end, she chose a sentence for the bottom of the card, which reads: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Apparently, this would have been a widely understood play on words: Photographers at the time used to encourage people to have their portraits taken by using the phrase “secure the shadow ’ere the substance fade.” Photography is one inversion after another. Put yourself into a photograph and that self will be preserved while your substantial self fades away. But then Truth inverts this again: The lasting shadow is primarily to be put to use for the changing, but real, substance—herself, Truth. Truth’s first language was Dutch. She dictated her autobiography because she could not read or write. But she named herself. She was a master of the English language and of the possible inversions of history. Nothing could be more formidable than what she said of the sale of these cards before a human-rights convention—as someone who was there remembered it and wrote it down—that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit and now she sold herself for her own.”
There’s a ghost in the Degas painting: a profile figure, not even half there, emerging from behind the wall, with its double-lined frame. At first the painting seems so plain—shades of white and gray and brown, three figures, a table spread with cotton. I’ve passed it many times with the thought that there was probably something to think about there, and it’s only in this last week, trying to understand it next to that photograph of Sojourner Truth, that I have thought, “it’s about painting.” The Degas is all raw materials—you couldn’t be more aware that you’re looking at paint on canvas. There are the swirls of paint that make up the cotton on the table; there is the rough area of paint to the right with the abstract designs on it reminiscent of the Japanese prints Degas was interested in; there is an actual painting on the wall, with its blurred oceangoing vessel, cut off, in case you had forgotten that painting is a construction. Above all, there is the strange half-hidden figure, behind the painted wall with the painting on it, someone the painter has yet to make real, but we know—because we feel completely differently about the other two figures—we know that the painter could make this person real, too. Control of the medium is control of the reality of persons.
These are my hands. Sojourner Truth knew that she was sitting for a portrait to be made into visiting cards, which she planned to sell. Unusually, she retained the copyright for the image, which ordinarily went to the photographer. Therefore, we know that she had every intention of being in control of this image. She was a person with a kind of genius for understanding mechanisms of control and possession. In her activist life, she advocated for abolition, women’s suffrage, prison reform, and, crucially, the possession of land for the disenfranchised. In her own case, emancipation had come to New York, (where she was enslaved,) in 1827, but her master had promised to free her a year early, in 1826. When he reneged, saying that she was less productive because of an injury to her hand, she took it upon herself to spin a hundred pounds of wool, by which she felt she had earned herself out. (I think she would have thought of this when she chose the yarn and knitting for illustration in her photograph.) After she spun, she walked to freedom, taking her infant daughter, the only one of her children to whom she legally had a right. When her five-year-old son was subsequently illegally sold to someone in Alabama, she took the case to court, becoming one of the first African-American women to win a suit against a white man. A woman forced to understand herself and her children in quantities of wool and cotton will see the shadows and substances of photographic paper portraits more profoundly than others will be capable of. These hands understand materiality in a way that I will never understand it, but that bears my thinking about it for as long as I can bear to think about it.
This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.