The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, has purchased a groundbreaking collection of images by some of history’s earliest Black photographers.
Smithsonian curator John Jacob said in a press statement that spotlighting early African American photographers will help the museum show “an inclusive history of photography, with African Americans among its earliest practitioners, conveying to viewers their contributions as innovators and entrepreneurs.”
A daguerreotype photographed by J.P. Ball, one of the earliest known African-American photographers. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum
The collection, which dates from the 1840s to around 1925, includes early forms of photography called daguerreotypes — a process that exposes chemically treated silver-plated copper sheets to light — as well as pieces of jewelry and pendants containing small images. The museum did not reveal how much it paid for the items.
Following the acquisition, the museum now owns the largest collection of daguerreotypes by three pioneering African American photographers: J.P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington, according to the press statement. The Smithsonian says only 166 of the photographers’ daguerreotypes combined are known to exist anywhere in the world.
The newly acquired items also include early portraits of Black subjects, a rarity among museum collections according to Jacob.
“The near absence of diverse portrait sitters and non-white photographers from many early American photography collections, including (ours), is ahistorical,” he said in the press statement.
The austere portraits, some of which are housed in delicate bronze and velvet cases, feature both Black and White men and women. Beyond photographs, the collection also includes objects related to the abolitionist movement that highlight the role of women involved with the Underground Railroad.
Over 260 objects were included in the museum’s recent purchase, including this daguerreotype photo of an unidentified woman. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum
One portrait by Ball, who operated several photographic studios in the Midwest and West during the second half of the 19th century, depicts a young boy in a blue tunic and bloomers with his elbow propped up against a table. Images by Washington and Goodridge, who operated out of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, respectively, show seemingly affluent subjects dressed in fine period clothing, including cravats and bowties.
The Smithsonian American Art museum said it owns “one of the most significant” African American art collections in the world, having acquired works by Joshua Johnson, the earliest documented professional African American painter, and Edmonia Lewis, the first professional sculptor of color, among others. West’s photography collection will form the “centerpiece” of a forthcoming gallery focusing on early American photography and the “democratization of portraiture.”
West revealed in the statement that he had curated and “nurtured” his collection for 45 years, beginning with a daguerreotype he purchased in 1975. He chose to sell his collection to the Smithsonian due to its “reputation for fostering research and new scholarship,” as well as its plans to feature the photographs in exhibitions, he is quoted as saying.
“For collector-researchers like myself, this use of the objects and research findings is critical,” he said. “It proves that anything a current collector has is not ‘owned,’ we are merely custodians for them.”