Smithsonian Acquires Rare Photos From 19th Century Black Photographers

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Photo: Getty Images

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has acquired a rare collection of artifacts and photos taken by pioneering Black photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington. The rare collection contains 286 objects that date back to the underground railroad and abolitionist movements of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Researchers will use these objects as a way to "study a racially diverse group of individuals and families from the 1840s through 1920s."

“They are remarkably beautiful and haunting images from a world away,” Smithsonian American Art Museum Director Stephanie Stebich said.

“These diverse portraits, depicting both African American and white subjects, show how democratizing photography was at the time and how accessible it was to the general public.”

The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the collection from New York-based art collector Larry J. West. Over the years, he has collected jewelry made of photographs and forms daguerreotypes, the first publicly available photographic process.

“When it came time to place the three collections that I have nurtured all these 45 years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was the obvious best choice with its reputation for fostering research and new scholarship and the plans presented by its curators to feature objects from these collections, in conversation with paintings and sculpture from the same time period, in the public galleries,” West said.

“For collector-researchers like myself, this use of the objects and research findings is critical. It proves that anything a current collector has is not ‘owned,’ we are merely custodians for them.”

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