Smithsonian acquires rare photographs from early African American studios

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Larry West was a M&A expert when he came across a New York Post article in 1975 that said vintage photographs were about to become the next big collectible. Inspired, he walked into a store in Mamaroneck, NY, and came across a daguerreotype – an early form of photography, done on highly polished metal plates that is almost startling in its hologram effect. It depicted an African-American man in a tuxedo, elegantly posed in front of the camera. West bought it for $10.70.

“Taxes included,” he said with a laugh in a phone interview.

The discovery kick-started West’s 45-year passion – some might say obsession – for daguerreotypes, as objects of beauty and as documents of American history, including the active role that African Americans have played both as makers and consumers of photography since its first invention.

Today a significant portion of his 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 “a coup”. The museum said the purchase price was in the mid-six figures.

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 largest collection of such works in the nation, and surpassing the 26 daguerreotypes of these photographers at the Library of Congress, the museum said.

Included in the purchase is an extensive collection of photographic jewelry — intimate objects made to be worn on the body, encrusted with tiny daguerreotypes or other types of photographs, perhaps accompanied by locks of hair. West calls the band 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 – black and white – who worked to raise funds for the operation.

West’s collection “really allows us to dramatically expand the canvas that most people see when they think of early photography in the United States,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, Smithsonian secretary and former director of 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 underappreciated and overlooked,” he added.

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

The invention of daguerreotype process in 1839 was big news at the time, and almost immediately photography studios sprang up across the United States, providing a new way for ordinary people to portray themselves, at a fraction of the cost of a painted portrait. Black photographers were on the cutting edge of this new technology, and affluent black people flocked to their studios.

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

Figures like Ball, Goodridge and Washington established successful studios catering to black and white clientele. Ball has worked in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Helena, Mont., among other places; Goodridge worked alongside his brothers in York, Penn.; and Washington established his studio in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving to Liberia in 1853.

Materials from West’s collection have the potential to extend, even rewrite, the early history of photography in the United States, said Makeda Best, curator of photography at the Harvard Art Museums. “It 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 were we creating images for ourselves, but we were helping to develop this new technology.”

Best adds that as the collection becomes available to a wider audience, it overturns the geography of photographic history. “There was a lot going on outside of New York and other major cities,” she said. “This collection shows us again how little we know about the range of photographic practices in the United States at this time.”

The three photographers at the center of the acquisition were active abolitionists – perhaps unsurprising given the important role photography played in the movement to end slavery and, as Bunch noted, “to counter the narrative of African Americans as only poor, as a stain on America rather than as contributors to America.

Deborah Willis, the famous photographer specialist in African-American photographic history, and a commissioner from SAAM, emphasized this point in a telephone interview. “We see beauty, we see fashion,” she said. “We see these multi-dimensional 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 just the challenges or ‘sufferings’ of the black body, but stories of black men and women who were entrepreneurs, who had dreams, who were driven by the politics of the time.”

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

West collected on the side 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. When he retired in 2017, he moved from New York to Washington, DC, in order to be “closer to history”, he said. His interest in contemporary African-American photography has intensified over the past two decades.

Part of the acquisition includes West’s research material and his own treatise on the collection. “It’s a treasure trove for whole new generations of art historians,” said Stebich, the director. There are plans to hold a symposium and other opportunities for experts to engage with the collection before the works go on public display, likely in fall 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 it couldn’t tell before.”


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