Smithsonian Acquires Rare Antique Portraits By First Black Photographers

J. P. Ball, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled (young boy), undated, sixth-plate daguerreotype. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Early African American Photography, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L. Denghausen Endowment.

Larry West was looking for a hobby that would combine visual arts and American history. And he found it in 1975 at an antique store in Mamaroneck, N.Y. At that time, boxes of daguerreotypes — the first commercially successful photographic process, invented around 1839 — would just be sitting there, West says. So he bought one “that happened to be [of] an African American,” he tells Weekend Edition. “And I was fascinated.”

That purchase embarked a 45-year hobby and passion, with West collecting antique photographs from some of the early African American photographers, including James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington.

Now, his collection of 286 objects dating from the 1840s to about 1925, which includes daguerreotypes and other early types of photographic works, has been sold to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Stebich, the museum’s director, calls it “a transformative collection for us.” The museum had to compete with other top institutions to acquire it.

Daguerreotypes were widely popular in the 1840s and 1850s and it’s estimated that 3 to 5 million were made in the United States. But only 30,000 to 40,000 still exist. That number is even smaller for the daguerreotypes that came from these first African American studios, which number around 166 for Ball, Goodridge and Washington, according to the Smithsonian.

West collected 40 of them, making them “as rare as hen’s teeth,” Stebich says. The purchase means the museum now owns the largest collection of daguerreotypes by these three Black photographers.

The daguerreotypes are portraits of both Black and white subjects. And they could be customized to fit into rings, brooches, or in customized frames and sizes. “To know that early [African] American photographers were doing this kind of work is something we knew, but I would tell you that we have overlooked. It’s a story that’s been marginalized. And now this will be a story that we will spotlight once again,” Stebich says.

Part of that story is a glimpse into the fashion, interests and daily lives of Black Americans during the underground railroad and abolitionist movements. Glenalvin Goodridge’s father was a major underground railroad figure and will be featured in a segment dedicated to that movement when the collection is publicly available. “This is going to help tell new stories,” West says.

The collection likely won’t be on display until 2023, and the museum is in search for a funder for further research into West’s extensive library.

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