A collection of early American photographs, including 40 rare daguerreotypes made by prominent 19th-century Black photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington, was purchased by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, DC. The 286 objects in the acquisition span from the 1840s — shortly after the daguerreotype, invented in 1839, became publicly available in the US — to the mid-1920s. Along with portraits that underscore the contributions of Black photographers and the presence of diverse sitters at the medium’s onset, the new acquisition features jewelry embedded with photographic images; portraits of abolitionists, particularly women abolitionists, who played key roles in the Underground Railroad; and other forms of early photography such as ambrotypes and tintypes, both invented in the 1850s.
Prior to the popularization of the daguerreotype, people typically turned to miniature painting when seeking intimate portraits of themselves and their loved ones; SAAM has hundreds of such miniature paintings in its collection. Daguerreotypes, while not inexpensive, offered a more affordable alternative to miniature painting. As more daguerreotype studios sprang up — by 1850, there were 71 studios in New York City alone — and prices went down, self-representation became accessible to a broader stratum of the population. With the advent of the ambrotype and tintype, these portraits became even more affordable.
“We typically view the movement from miniature painting to early cased photography as the democratization of portraiture,” John Jacob, the Smithsonian’s McEvoy Family Curator for Photography, told Hyperallergic, adding that photographic jewelry — accessories like brooches and bracelets that featured photographic portraits, sometimes accompanied by locks of hair — acted as a bridge between the two.
While SAAM boasts a robust collection of vernacular photography from this period, it had very few early American photographs by — or of — diverse individuals in its collection, a phenomenon that Jacob called “ahistorical.” “Now, the museum is able to tell an inclusive story that places these three African American photographers — Ball, Goodridge, and Washington — at the birth of American photography, conveying their importance as innovators and entrepreneurs,” Jacob said. “It’s a project that I’ve been excited about for a long time, and now we can really move forward.”
Researchers are aware of approximately 166 extant daguerreotypes by Ball, Goodridge, and Washington, though it’s likely that there are more in private collections. The relative scarcity of these images is tied up with the inherent fragility of the medium; the lack of professional care that this type of material culture typically received over time; and the attention that collectors in the genre have historically paid to a small group of photographers at the potential expense of others. SAAM now has more daguerreotypes by Ball, Goodridge, and Washington than any other US institution (the Library of Congress is in second place with 26, over half of which are by Washington) and will become an important hub for research in the field.
The new additions come from the holdings of Larry J. West, who built his collection over the course of more than four decades. In addition to being a longtime collector of early American photography, West is a connoisseur in the field, and the Smithsonian also acquired his library, including his own detailed writings about the photographs in his care. (“Anything a current collector has is not ‘owned,’ we are merely custodians,” West said in a statement on the acquisition.) West, who retired in 2017, not only collects photographic jewelry and old photographs in jewel box-like cases; he also collects rare natural color diamonds, and examples from that collection have been exhibited at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Select items from the acquisition will be on view in the museum’s forthcoming early American photography gallery, which has taken the democratization of portraiture as its theme. “These significant photographs will be presented as part of our permanent collection reinstallation, rather than in an exhibition that comes and goes” Jacob said. “They’re part of our story.”