Today In Latin American History

Prolific German-Brazilian photographer Alberto Henschel was born to a Jewish family in Berlin on June 13, 1827 and became established in Brazil nearly forty years later. He is renowned for his portraits of Brazilians from a variety of social and racial backgrounds, and became an official photographer of the Imperial House in 1874. He continued to work in the country until his death in 1882.

Because of the much later abolition of its slave system Brazil possesses a vastly more varied and extensive photographic archive of slaves and slavery than North America. The quarter century between the American Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passage of the Golden Law in Brazil in 1888 saw a massive growth in the number of photographs produced in Brazil, and a remarkable set of technological innovations that affected the manner in which life, and outdoor action, could be recorded photographically. Consequently the Brazilian archive is both more extensive and more ‘modern’ than that of America.

…Alberto Henschel [and other Brazilian photographers of his time] all produced a significant amount of work that was focused on black enslaved subjects. Each photographer had his own signature style and own ways of approaching local black cultures, and this specificity makes the Brazilian archive unique. Photography in Brazil during the period 1840-1860 developed as quickly as it did in England and France, and in these early years, more quickly than in the United States. Rio de Janeiro was, from the outset, the great center of photography, and the majority of photographers working there were foreigners. (Source: Marcus Wood, Black Milk: Imagining Slavery in the Visual Cultures of Brazil and America.)

Here are some examples of Alberto Henschel’s work:

  1. Black woman with turban, 1870. While Henschel is known for his many portraits of Brazil’s Black population, both free and enslaved, most of his Black sitters aren’t identified by name. 
  2. Old Black man, 1870.
  3. Mulatta from Salvador, Bahia, 1869.
  4. Black boy from Pernambuco, 1870.
  5. Emperor Pedro II, 1875.
  6. Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, 1881. A veteran of the Paraguayan War, he would go on to oust the Emperor of Brazil in 1889 and become the first president of the newly-established Brazilian republic.
  7. José do Patrocínio, 1882. Writer, abolitionist, and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He was the son of a White man and a once-enslaved Black woman born in West Africa.
  8. Castro Alves, 1870. Poet, playwright, and chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
  9. Henschel and his partner Francisco Benque were named  Photographers of the Imperial House in 1874, and maintained offices in Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco.
  10. Henschel (right) photographed with his partner Constantino Barza in 1870.

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)

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