Smithsonian acquires rare photographs from early African-American studios

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Larry West was an expert on mergers and acquisitions when he came across a New York Post article in 1975 that said old photographs were about to become the next great collector’s item. Inspired, he walked into a store in Mamaroneck, NY, and came across a daguerreotype – an early form of photography, performed on highly polished metal plates that is almost surprising in its hologram-like effect. It depicted an African-American man in a tuxedo, elegantly posed in front of the camera. West bought it for $ 10.70.

“TTC,” he laughed in a telephone interview.

The discovery launched West’s 45-year-old passion – some might say obsession – for daguerreotypes, as objects of beauty, and as documents of American history, including the active role played by African Americans. as manufacturers and consumers of photography since its first invention.

Now, a significant segment of her collection, most of which has never been on public display, has been purchased by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, DC, an event that Stephanie Stebich, the director of the museum, called it a “coup”. The museum said the purchase price was in the six digits.

The group of 286 objects, dating from the 1840s to the mid-1920s, includes a cache of 40 daguerreotypes made by three of the most prominent black photographers of the 19th century, James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington, making SAAM the most large collection of such works in the country, and exceeding the 26 daguerreotypes of these photographers at the Library of Congress, the museum said.

The purchase includes an extensive collection of photographic jewelry – intimate items designed to be worn on the body, encrusted with tiny daguerreotypes or other types of photographs, perhaps with strands of hair. West calls the group created by and for African Americans “the rarest of the few.”

The acquisition is complemented by portraits of abolitionists and photographs related to the Underground Railroad, with particular attention to the women – both black and white – who worked to raise funds for the operation.

West’s collection “really allows us to significantly expand the canvas that most people see when they think of early photographs in the United States,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian and former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. and Cultural.

“What I’m so happy about is not just the portrayal of abolitionist women, but also the portrayal of African American photographers who are often underestimated and overlooked,” he added.

The timing was right, as SAAM is embarking on a relocation of its permanent collections over the next few years. John Jacob, his curator for photography, says the newly acquired objects will play a central role.

The invention of the daguerreotype process in 1839 was major news at the time, and almost immediately photography studios flourished all over the United States, offering a new way for ordinary people to imagine themselves, at a fraction the cost of a painted portrait. Black photographers were at the forefront of this new technology, and well-off blacks flocked to their studios.

“The transition from miniature painting to portrait photography is truly a democratization of portraiture,” said Jacob. “But to explore this story, a collection has to have diverse photographers and the images have to have diverse subjects – that’s the only way to tell the story of democratization. We couldn’t tell this story before; now, bringing in Larry’s collection, that’s something we can do now.

Figures such as Ball, Goodridge, and Washington have established successful studios for black and white clientele. Ball has worked in Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Helena, Mont., Among others; Goodridge worked alongside his brothers in York, Penn .; and Washington established his studio in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving to Liberia in 1853.

The materials in West’s collection have the potential to deepen, if not rewrite, the beginnings of the history of photography in the United States, said Makeda Best, curator of photography at Harvard Art Museums. “This tells us that everyday African Americans were both consumers and producers of this new medium, that they immediately recognized its importance,” she said. “Not only did we create images for ourselves, but we were participating in the development of this new technology. ”

Better to add that as the collection becomes accessible to a wider audience, it shifts the geography of the history of photography. “There was a lot going on outside of New York and other big cities,” she said. “This collection shows us once again how little we know about the range of photographic practices in the United States during this period. “

The three photographers at the center of the acquisition were active abolitionists – perhaps not surprising given the important role photography played in the movement to end slavery and, as Bunch noted, “for counter the narrative of African Americans as only poor, as a stain on America rather than as contributors to America.

Deborah Willis, the photographer, a well-known specialist in the history of African-American photography and commissioner of SAAM, made this point clear in a telephone interview. “We see the beauty, we see the fashion,” she said. “We see these multidimensional experiences of black men and women during this time.”

She added that the photographs expand our view of the African-American experience by depicting “not only the challenges or ‘suffering’ of the black body, but stories of black men and women who were entrepreneurs, who had dreams, who were motivated by the politics of the day.”

The fact that it took 45 years for West to amass 40 daguerreotypes from African-American photographers shows how well these objects have survived and how relentless the collector was in his research, Jacob said. “When I started first, it was a lot easier, ”said West, who is 70 years old. “Most collectors are old white people,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Some ladies too, to be fair.”

West was a side-collector while working for Avon in the 1970s, focusing his attention on photographs of Abraham Lincoln. After moving to Tiffany and Co. in 1978, he discovered the existence of photographic jewelry. Upon his retirement in 2017, he moved from New York to Washington, DC, in order to be “closer to history,” he said. His interest in African-American photography of the time has intensified over the past two decades.

Part of the acquisition includes West’s research papers and his own treatise on the collection. “It’s a treasure for new generations of art historians,” said Stebich, the director. There are plans to convene a symposium and other opportunities for experts to get involved in the collection before the works are on display to the public, possibly in the fall of 2023.

“All collectors and historians have this dream for their collections – will my material be used and will it last? West says. With the addition of his collection, West says, the Smithsonian “can tell a lot of stories they couldn’t tell before.”


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