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.”

James P. Ball (left) and Frederick Douglass (right)

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.” 

Glenalvin Goodridge, Mrs. Glenalvin Goodridge (Rhoda), 1859, sixth-plate ambrotype. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Early African American Photography

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.” 

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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 Teetan oral history of Savannah’s Gullah Geechee elders, and Women Who Ain’t Afraid to Curse When Communicating with God.

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