In 1850, the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, perhaps the most famous geologist and scientist in America, commissioned J. T. Zealy, a daguerreotypist in Columbia, South Carolina, to take a series of photographs of slaves from nearby plantations. The goal of the series was to provide evidence for the theory that Africans were not direct descendants of Adam and Eve but products of a separate, “second” creation. The doctrine of “separate creation” was intended to justify white racism and slavery. Zealy photographed African-born slaves whom he regarded as specimens or “types.” The portraits he sent to Agassiz stand today as perhaps the most haunting and painful images to emerge from the era of the daguerreotype. They show naked or partially clothed figures facing the camera head-on. They also reveal whip-marks, scars, and other disfigurations from slavery. What rage, pain, humiliation, or resistance the making of the daguerreotypes provoked among the sitters goes unrecorded. We are left instead with their stares, stoic and impassive, masking worlds of feeling that the viewer can only imagine.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)