The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Latest Acquisition of Rare Photographs by Black Daguerreotypists
by Trelani Michelle
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke
On August 17, 2021, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) announced that it had acquired a collection of photographs and photographic jewelry that includes rare images from the earliest African-American studios. This acquisition made SAAM home of the largest collection of works by 19th-century African-American daguerreotypists including James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington.
This passage sums up what daguerreotype photography is nicely:
“In 1826, Frenchman Joseph-Nicephore Niepce took a picture (heliograph, as he called it) of a barn. The image, the result of an eight-hour exposure, was the world’s first photograph. Little more than ten years later, his associate Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre devised a way to permanently reproduce an image, and his picture—a daguerreotype—needed just twenty minutes’ exposure. A practical process of photography was born. (Franklin Institute)
Invented in 1839, Daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process. It made portraits more attainable–still a luxury to have though. There were a number of African-American daguerreotypists, but not many of their careers were documented. James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington’s photographic careers were recorded, however.
Here’s a snippet of their respective backgrounds:
James P. Ball was born in 1825 in Frederick County, Virginia. He was born free and learned the craft from another free black man. He opened a photography studio at 20 years old then pivoted to traveling as a photographer, an industry of its own during that time, after the studio closed. He pit-stopped in Richmond, Virginia at 21 years old and opened a studio near the state capitol that made a lot of money and got his name out there.
In addition to photography, he was also an abolitionist. In 1855, at 30 years old, he published a 56-page pamphlet about slavery and held photo exhibitions of his work, along with a team of other black artists, on the experience of enslavement from West Africa to what was then present-day America. The project extended to a 2,500 square yard painted panoramic mural on canvas panels showing the savagery of slavery, titled: Ball’s Splendid, Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Savannah Rivers, Niagara Falls &c
“He presented his tour of the United States through the journey undertaken by an enslaved African American man. Beginning with his life in an African village, described as an idyllic world of natural wonder and beauty, the story follows the man as he is captured, transported, and sold at an auction in St. Louis, Missouri, and enslaved on a plantation. His eventual escape through the swamps of Louisiana is shown before he reaches Canada, where the monumental Niagara Falls thunderously celebrate his freedom.” (EPOCH Magazine)
His artivism also showed up in three photographs he took of William Biggerstaff, a black man who was accused of murdering a black prize fighter and was hanged for it. The first picture (seen to the left) is of Biggerstaff seated and staring into the camera, not much different than anyone else’s portrait during that time. The second was of the hanging and the third was Biggerstaff in an open coffin. Displays of Ball’s daguerreotypes were shown at the Ohio State Fair and at the Ohio Mechanics Annual Exhibition.
In 1856, Ball traveled to Europe and added Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens to his list of subjects/sitters. His reputation preceded him, and his studio attracted customers like Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant’s mother and sister, well-known abolitionists, and Union Army soldiers.
In 1887, while living in Minneapolis, he became the official photographer of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in that city. Having lived and set up shop in Greenville, Mississippi; Vidalia, Louisiana; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Helena, Montana, he moved to Honolulu two years before he passed in 1904. About two decades later, his granddaughter, chemist Alice Ball, discovered a cure for leprosy which she named the “Ball method.”
Glenalvin Goodridge was born in 1829, the first of 7 children to Evalina Wallace and William C. Goodridge. William, Glenalvin’s father, was freed from slavery at 16 years old then moved to Marietta, Pennsylvania to learn the barber trade. At 17 years old, he moved to York, Pennsylvania and opened a barber shop, his first of many businesses, where he served esteemed black and white businessmen and politicians.
One of those businesses included the Reliance Line of railcars, which traveled from York to Philly. The railcars, along with his personal and commercial properties, were also used secretly to help free enslaved black folk traveling the Underground Railroad. Toni Morrison said, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” Glenalvin’s father understood the assignment. He was also good friends with Frederick Douglass.
William and Evalina had all of their children educated at a Catholic school when most black kids in the country were still enslaved and legally forbidden to be taught. Now that you’ve met William for context, let’s shift the focus to his firstborn, Glenalvin.
After high school, Glenalvin studied daguerreotype under Joseph Reinhart then established his own practice in 1847 in Reinhart’s old studio. In 1850, he moved the studio into the family home. His next move was his best move when he turned the top floor of Centre Hall, the city’s newest and tallest building (also owned by his father), into his “Skylight Studio.”
It became the longest-lasting early photography studio in the city. The ample natural light worked wonders for his daguerreotypes (photos on metal) and ambrotypes (photos on glass), and he was able to charge twice his competitors’ price. In addition to photography, he also taught at York’s colored high school from 1847-1851, during the same era that Francis Harper, a black woman abolitionist and poet, taught there.
In 1862, Glenalvin was arrested for rape. His father had justices, lawyers, and businessmen from York write letters to question the legitimacy of the charges. The following year, Glenalvin was granted a full pardon by the governor. While incarcerated, he contracted tuberculosis, which led to his death in 1867 at only 38 years old.
Augustus Washington was born in 1820 in Trenton, New Jersey to a formerly enslaved father and a mother of South Asian descent. In 1843, he learned to make daguerreotypes to help pay for his expenses at Dartmouth College. He made money, but not enough to afford school. So he dropped out and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where, like Glenalvin Goodridge, he taught at a school for black students.
In 1846, he opened one of Hartford’s first daguerreian galleries where he sold portraits priced between fifty cents to ten dollars. He attracted a broad clientele of black and white folk. By the early 1850s, he was regarded as one of the city’s first daguerreotypists. One of his works include the earliest known portrait of the radical abolitionist, John Brown.
Convinced that emancipation wasn’t enough to lessen the hardship on black people in this country, in 1853, Washington saved up for a year then joined the movement of black folk resettling in Liberia, with his wife and two children. He opened a daguerreian studio in Monrovia and was commissioned by the American Colonization Society to take portraits of other resettled men and women in Liberia to make it seem like the new West African colony was the promised land for the descendants of those forced into the Middle Passage.
Washington later retired from his photographic work and became a sugarcane planter on the shores of Liberia’s St. Paul River. In 1858, he transitioned into a political career, becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives for Liberia from 1865-1869. He died in Monrovia in 1875.
SAAM’s acquisition of photographs from Ball, Goodridge, and Washington
The Smithsonian American Art Museum purchased the collection from the 19th-century photography historian and collector Larry J. West. West started collecting antique photographs more than 40 years ago and has since acquired a rare selection of photos made by black photographers and/or depict black subjects.
According to SAAM’s press release: “The L.J. West Collection includes 286 objects from the 1840s to about 1925 in three groupings: works by early African American daguerreotypists James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington; early photographs of diverse portrait subjects and objects related to abolitionists, the Underground Railroad and the role of women entrepreneurs in it; and photographic jewelry that represents the bridge between miniature painting and early cased photography such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes.”
John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, noted “The near absence of diverse portrait sitters and non-white photographers from many early American photography collections, including SAAM’s, is ahistorical. Significantly, SAAM now can show an inclusive history of photography, with African Americans among its earliest practitioners, conveying to viewers their contributions as innovators and entrepreneurs.”
START COLLECTING ART
Sign up for our free email course on how to begin your collection.
Trelani Michelle is today’s Zora Neale Hurston, outchea recording history and culture by gathering the people’s stories. She earned a Bachelor’s of Political Science from SSU, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from SCAD, and interned with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center.
Crowned Savannah’s best local author, Trelani has written several best-selling titles, including Krak Teet, an oral history of Savannah’s Gullah Geechee elders, and Women Who Ain’t Afraid to Curse When Communicating with God.
Would you buy stock in BAIA if you could? Well we invite you to join us in becoming a monthly supporter, starting at just $3 a month YOU become a stakeholder and begin to help us transform lives through art. We are growing the BAIA team and will use your contributions to hire more team members for the purpose of creating more educational and marketing resources for schools and universities about african american artists both past and present. Such art initiatives and educational programming like Blacklite with Steve Prince, Relating to Art with Dr. Kelli Morgan, and BAIA BITS would not be possible without the ongoing support of our Patreon members. Please consider becoming a monthly Patreon member today!
Review our list of rewards for becoming a BAIA Patreon / patron supporter. Your monthly contribution has lasting benefits. — “What will your legacy be” – Dr. Margaret Burroughs
Thank you new and recurring monthly Patrons
Deloris and Eddie Young, Esther Silver-Parker, Eugene Foney, Zadig & Voltaire, Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art, John and Melanie Guess, Frank Frazier, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Leslie Fields, Jim Nixon, Dr. Michael Butler, Mary “Madea” Jones, Patrick Stewart, Noreen Winningham, Reg Pugh, Kevin Smokler, Deborah R. Moore, Dr. Skyller Walkes, Jae M, Jocelyne Lamour, Marion Zweig, Shannon DeVaney, Ashlee Jacob, DaNia Childress, Rev. Anita Marshall, Mary Ali-Masai, Devera Redmond, Roslyn Valentine, Robin King, Brenda Larnell, Michael, Jeffery Washington, Tricia Konan, Debra L Lacy CHARLES BIBBS, Fredric Isler, Silvia Peters, Harold Moore, Shurvon Haynes K.Coleman Shannon Dale Davis Terese L Hawkins M. Rasheed Jamal Love Annette, Mason Archie, Manuelita Brown, Carolyn L. Mazloomi Gale Ross KL Martin michael jacobs Virginia Joy Simmons Christ Van Loan Sr. Cecilia Winters-Morris, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Pearlie Taylor, Danny Jenkins, Sara, Lloyd Goode, Marina Kovic, Sarah Rooney, Mitchell Shohet, Nicole Farley, Cheryl B Blankman, Jocelyn Greene, Laura Di Piazza Petrina Burkard Hannah Diener Sarah Drury Claire Sig Mina Silva Whitney, Sara Friesen, Megan LaCroix, Kellyn Maguire, Sophia Bellin,o Cory Huff, Wilhelmina Barker, Linda Eaddy, Shelley Danzy, Rosalyn D. Elder, Sonia Spencer Karen Pinzolo Desiree Dansan, Deborah Paige-Jackson, ALKEBU LAN IMAGES Bookstore DeLores M Dyer, Shelia, Harry F Banks, Susan Ross, Dr. Diane R. Miles, Carlton Cotton, Andre Mitchell, Joan L. Ward, JOCELYN BENITA SMITH, Paul Robinson, Janice Orr, Patricia D Dungy, Ethnie Weekes, Shawn Rhea, Duke Windsor, Runez M Bender, Karen Y House, M Belinda Tucker, Dr. Yonette Thomas, Diana Shannon Young, Judith Hamilton, Julia Turner Lowe, Francene Greene, Caryliss R. Weaver, Sharmon Jane Hilfinger, Bill and Deborah Nix, joyce a, Wanda Baker-Smith, Timothy Gandley, Anneke Schwob, Emily M, Rachael horner, Morris Howard, Marie L Johnson, Ayoka Chenzira, Jean Gumpper, Caitlin Charles, Becca H,. Dr. Darlene White, Dr. Sandra Boyce Broomes, Michele C. Mayes, Rita Crittenden, Reginald Laurent, Jea Delsarte, Brenda Brooks, Suzette Renwick, BEVERLY GRANT, Linda B. Smith, Judith Bergeron, Emily Hegeman Cavanagh, Teri L Lewis, Cooky Goldblatt, Danni Cerezo, Hollis Turner, cdixon06, Freda Davis, Sarah Caputo, jacki rust, Curtis Morrow, Christina Levine, Jessica Beckstrom, Kim Walker, Pamela Hart, Ted Ellis, Louise berner-holmberg, Carla Sonheim, Nicole Bruce, Alison Deas, Monikapi, Ashley Littlefield, Reginald Browne Bill Cook, SylviaWong Lewis, DONNA PAXTON, Kanika Marshall, Cheyenne, Nancy Maignan, Kimberly Smith, Tracy Russ, Gwen Meharg, K Joy Peters, johnnie mae maberry, Lester Marks, Zishan Evans, Anne king, Dianna A. Harris, Arbrie Griffin Bradley, Sandra Sautner, Barbara Brown, Bronwen Hodgkinson, Sonia Deane, January Hoskin, Quinton Foreman, Key Mosley, Jim Alexander, Terri Pease, Annette Groschke, Richard MacMillan, D T Ray, Camille, Elayne Gross, Ann Tankersley, Samori Augusto, Karen M Hirsch, Jeanne H Chaney, Jacqueline Konan, Jerome Moore, Patricia Andrews-Keenan, India Still, Luna Cascade, Amy Peck, Marnese Barksdale, Elder Bridgette, René McCullough, Kevin and Tracy Burton, Raven Burnes, Kim Dubois, Edwina King Diva E, Charlotte Bender, Phyllis Stephens, Alisa R Elliot, Ebony English, Otto Neals, Michael Nix, Terri Bowles, Nelly Maynard, Leslie Smith, Bernard W. Kinsey, Toby Sisson, Raynard Hall, Milton Loupe, Wren Mckinley, Arturo Lindsay, Lindiwe Stovall Lester, Phil, Ricki Carroll, Sherman E Jackson Jr, Janine P Rouson, Raynard Hall, Vickie Townsend-Carter, Peter Prinz, PB Fine Art Appraisal, Alison Woods, Suzette Davis, Carlton Cotton, Art Now After Hours, Diane E Leifheit, Tamara clements, lisa tomlinson, vince leal, Deborah BarnwellGarr, Sonia Pollard, Barbara Hayes, Loretta Y Blakely, Gregg Y, Paige Jernigan, Randy McAnulty, raven walthor, Will Johnson, jack, Shameika Ingram, Trina Virginia Brooks, Black Wall Street Gallery, Suzanne Roberts, Faye Edwards,
We Appreciate Your Support