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Smithsonian acquires essential, rare early photography collection by and featuring Black Americans

Header Image: Unidentified artist, Untitled (brooch, man with goatee), undated, albumen print in metal setting. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Photographic Jewelry, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L.DenghausenEndowment.

In a move that they call “a coup”, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has acquired 289 objects containing early photography. The collection previously belonged to collector Larry J. West, who has been collecting daguerreotypes and the likes since 1975. Of note, the collection includes 40 daguerreotypes made by three of the most prominent Black photographers of the 19th century, James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington. 

G. J. Goodridge, Mrs.GlenalvinGoodridge (Rhoda), 1859,sixth-plate ambrotype. 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.DenghausenEndowment.

The objects within the collections range from standalone photos to photographic jewelry — bracelets and necklaces embedded with tiny photographs of the owners’ loved ones. Other photographs in the collections also feature portraits of abolitionists and the figures — especially women — who worked to raise money for the Underground Railroad operation.

The acquisition symbols a rewriting of photography’s history. Photography was never just the playground for rich, white men. The new invention revolutionizes the art of portraiture, with turn-of-the-century Black Americans embracing photography as a way to reimagine themselves not as former slaves but as people who demand dignity and respect. “The transition from miniature painting to the photographic portrait is really a democratization of portraiture,” John Jacob, the Smithsonian’s curator for photography, said. 

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

The collection has never been seen by the public and will be one of the features in the Smithsonian’s upcoming reinstallation of its permanent collections. The museum also plans to hold a symposium and other opportunities for experts to engage with and study the collection. Alongside the photos, the acquisition also includes West’s research materials and his treatise about the collection.

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