BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 28 SEP 23

The Groundbreaking Pictures of the Black Photography Studio

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, two exhibitions depict 19th-century art history through an updated lens

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 28 SEP 23

Frederick Douglass is said to be the ‘most-photographed man’ of the 19th century. The many pictures taken of him during his long life reflect the rapid development of new techniques – from the spectral daguerreotype to the cheaply circulating albumen on paper – and the abolitionist leader’s understanding that the medium was a new avenue for Black self-expression in an era with few other options. In the southern US states, enslavement and the rapid reassertion of white supremacy after emancipation meant a creative life usually consigned to making ceramics, furniture or decorative murals. Northern cities, too, offered straitened conditions, though several Black artists, such as Edmonia Lewis, Robert S. Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner have been, belatedly, recognized as luminaries of the era.

The silvered plate proved to be a more democratic support than the canvas; almost from its inception in 1839, photo studios cropped up by the dozens in cities around the world. There were mixed results for the sitters, some of whom were able to style themselves before the lens while others were subjected to its pseudoscientific appraisal. But Black photographers used their studios both in the service of their communities and to achieve social mobility. Some historians, such as Deborah Willis, have written about these studios at length over the years, and attention is now paid to studios across the globe, including the vibrant portraiture that framed city life in postcolonial western Africa or documents of family life interwoven with the passage from the Caribbean to the British Midlands.

J.P. Ball, Unidentified sitters, 1858–60, quarter-plate daguerreotype. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Back in the US, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has steadily been assembling the most substantial collection of these works from the 19th century (some 900 of them according to John Jacob, their curator of photography). In 2021, it purchased the L.J. West collection, which included key figures like Glenalvin Goodridge, Augustus Washington and James Presley Ball; this year SAAM added the Dr. Robert Drapkin Collection. Taken together, SAAM’s holdings demonstrate the ways Black Americans were depicted during the 19th century and its aftermath, as well as Black photographers’ pivotal role in shaping the course of a medium long defined by European elites or successive cohorts of peripatetic, white modernists.

Douglass himself is now featured in this collection on a paper ‘cabinet card’ by the Conley Studio of Boston (along with activist John Brown and Underground Railroad operator Abigail Goodwin). Yet the first tranche of pictures on temporary display centres on the concordance of Ball, whose famed studio was based in Cincinnati, and Duncanson, who began his painting career in earnest after decamping to the nearby Mt. Healthy in 1840. The latter was a rural redoubt home to a large free-Black community. Meanwhile, Cincinnati was a booming city on the north bank of the Ohio River and a terminus for those fleeing enslavement in the South. Providential river crossings are one of the several coded motifs in Duncanson’s otherwise picturesque landscapes, and this area – a hotbed of abolitionist activity – has been taken up in recent years by artists such as Dawoud Bey. The exhibition features several of these scenes, including an early rendering of a stately country home at Mt. Healthy, contrasting the utopian scene within the fence line and a prowling hunter and dog without – surely an emblem of fugitive slave laws and their attendant bounty hunters. It is rendered with bold colour and rougher brushwork that nods to Duncanson’s early career as an autodidact portraitist and is contrasted with the lush 1859 Landscape with Rainbow, an allegory of the American prospect featured at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration.

Robert Duncanson, Mount Healthy, Ohio, 1844. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum

While Duncanson would, with the help of the local abolitionist community, go on many ‘grand tours’ of Europe, he seems to have struck a partnership with Ball around 1854. Within a year, they had developed a colossal moving scroll of a painting that anticipated the cinematic and, unlike stationary cycloramas of the era, moved from city to city during the run-up to the Civil War. Titled Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade […] (1855), it was both didactic and polemical, illustrating the brutality of life on the plantation. Such formal experimentation expanded, apparently, to Ball’s daguerreotypes as well, with Duncanson hand-tinting or chemical toning the otherwise monochrome likenesses.

Robert Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow, 1859. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Surprisingly, ‘J.P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration’ does not feature photographs of Black Americans. The nine photographs here are compelling, nonetheless. For one, they demonstrate that well-to-do white Americans relied on Black photographic studios. Contemporary engravings show that Ball’s was a leading concern in what was then the thriving heart of the country’s ‘northwest’. Ball would move westward still to the periphery of empire, including the high plain of Montana and then to Hawaii, but he left behind a crucial record of progressive life in the antebellum north. Meanwhile, the pictures are beguiling in their own right. I never cease to be surprised by how I am affected by early photography: in our daily lives of infinite scroll, their soft silver surfaces, protected by ornate velvet cases, still oscillate to a strange frequency, by turns glittering and vaporous. A smaller plate of a toddling girl has all the hallmarks of the long exposure times needed of the era. She leans on a small table and stares wide-eyed at Ball. Black-and-white but for her dress, Duncanson’s hand-applied cerulean paint creates an otherworldly contrast. If Walter Benjamin thought the photograph destroyed a picture’s aura, he never saw objects like this. And, it seems, there will be many more to come at SAAM in the years ahead.

'J. P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration' is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., until March 2024

Main Image: J.P. Ball, Unidentified Sitter, ca.1858, albumen silver print with applied colour. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).