Using gloved hands and utmost care, assistants carry the treasures out of storage and place them on a table in a well-lit viewing room. The small, rare photographic portraits are encased in hinged velvet-lined metal cases. “Look at her, isn’t she stunning?” says Eleanor Jones Harvey, a senior curator here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). She points to a portrait made in 1859 of an African American woman with center-parted hair, lace gloves and a look of tremendous poise, style and confidence. The woman was Rhoda Goodridge, and the man behind the camera was her husband, Glenalvin Goodridge of York, Pennsylvania.
Largely forgotten today, Goodridge was one of the most important African American photographers of the 19th century, who, along with James P. Ball of Cincinnati and Augustus Washington of Hartford (both of whom are also well represented in SAAM’s collections), helped define this emerging art. Indeed, after major acquisitions in 2021 and 2023, SAAM can now boast the largest collection of daguerreotypes and photographic jewelry from the earliest known African American photographers—many of the images never before exhibited.
“Before daguerreotypes, if you wanted a portrait made, you commissioned a painter,” says John Jacob, a photography curator at SAAM, as we study Rhoda’s portrait. “Photography democratized portraiture because it was significantly cheaper. But until we acquired these images, we weren’t able to show in our collection that African Americans were part of this process, as photographers and subjects, and also as entrepreneurs and innovators, experimenting with the latest technology and investing in it.”
The stars of these collections are Goodridge, Ball and Washington. Their studios were up and running just a few years after Mathew Brady, the best-known American photographer of the 19th century, had opened his first portrait studio, in New York City in 1844. Using the daguerreotype process—invented in France in 1839, it employed highly polished, silver-plated copper sheets and produced images of striking luminosity—Goodridge, Ball and Washington made portraits of white and Black clients, mainly as keepsakes for family members.
“The daguerreotype was referred to as a mirror with a memory,” Jacob says. “It was meant to be held and looked on with loving eyes. Your own gaze was reflected back at you as you were looking at the image of your loved one.”
Goodridge’s portrait of Rhoda is an ambrotype, made by placing an underexposed glass negative against a black background. This technique, patented in 1854, displaced daguerreotypes. Good-ridge and Ball also adopted the tintype process, which produced images on a thin sheet of iron coated with a dark lacquer or enamel.
SAAM began acquiring these portraits in 2021, from a larger collection assembled over 45 years by Larry J. West, a historian and collector of 19th-century material who specializes in African American photography.
The rarest items are pieces of photographic jewelry containing images of African American subjects. During our tour of the collection, Harvey singles out her favorite: a lapel pin with an ambrotype of a young, goateed Black man in a suit. He has an open, friendly face, and apart from the 19th-century string tie, he looks as if he could walk right out of the photograph and start discussing contemporary affairs. “It’s magical because it’s timeless,” Harvey says. “And the level of self-possession and self-assurance is spectacular.”
Jacob observes that this man, like most African Americans in the collection, looks middle class. “They really do,” says Harvey. “Middle or upper middle class, which are strata of African American life that have been effectively erased from the bulk of the 19th-century narrative. We’ve been telling a story grounded in our confirmation bias, that all the art forms were dominated by white artists and patrons.”
To some observers, the white faces in the collection might raise a question—why did they choose to have their portraits made by Black photographers when white photographers were also available? Part of it might be the prodigious reputations some of these photographers achieved. Further, “there’s an assumption that the white clientele would be sympathetic to abolition and want to support these people,” says Harvey. “But we really don’t know.”
To be sure, abolitionist networks in Boston and Cincinnati deliberately supported Black artists and entrepreneurs. Moreover, all three photographers were committed abolitionists, and two were actively involved in helping fugitive slaves escape. “Larry West has found a number of connections between the photographers, abolitionists and the Underground Railroad,” says Harvey. One of the reasons West brought his collection to SAAM is to inspire more scholarship and research.
West appears on the computer screen for an interview. He’s sitting in his home office in Washington, D.C. with a Mathew Brady portrait of Frederick Douglass and a lithograph of Abraham Lincoln on the wall behind him. Asked for his age, he replies in a New York City accent coursing with prickly good humor, “Oh, I’m very old, and that’s all I’m saying.” Asked to describe his personality, he answers, “A determined … deal maker. A lover of American history. A storyteller through collecting.”
Like many collectors, he says, he has an obsessive side, a desire to keep buying and researching. He bought his first daguerreotype 48 years ago in Mamaroneck, New York, for $10. The cover glass was quite corroded, but it appeared to feature a Black man wearing a tuxedo. The image activated West’s curiosity—who was this man, and how had he lived?
“Within two years or so, I acquired a watch locket with four dags of African American people,” West says, using the nickname for daguerreotypes, “and that started me collecting and researching photo-jewelry, and eventually assembling the world’s best Black photo-jewelry collection, which is now at SAAM.”
In the mid-1970s, while an executive for Avon, the cosmetics company, he was collecting vintage photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Then he started collecting images showing Brady and other early American photographers at work, with their families and in other settings. Over the decades, these efforts led to a massive collection of images, which West donated to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2007.
It wasn’t until 2010 that he began to collect works by Goodridge, Ball and Washington and understand their importance. “They were special, damned special,” he says. “They all, as Black men, overcame the biggest obstacles to success, and many thousands of early photographers failed. They learned the daguerreotype process, raised enough capital to buy equipment and open a gallery, learned to run a business and attract enough white customers to financially survive, and tolerate the discrimination that undoubtedly existed.”
“Look at Glenalvin,” he says. “He was a smart guy, a teacher in Black schools as well as a photographer. He was the son of William Goodridge, a prosperous free Black merchant who was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad.”
William’s house in York, Pennsylvania, is now a museum called the Goodridge Freedom Center. Visitors can see where the family hid freedom seekers under the kitchen floor, and there’s a reproduction of Glenalvin’s daguerreotype studio, or “gallery,” as it was known, in an upstairs room.
“His business had gone soft, so his father let him open a gallery in the house,” West says. “At night they would lead the freedom seekers through the alleys to the railroad tracks. When Glen had a gallery downtown, they would hide people there at night before taking them to the tracks.” William Goodridge owned a railroad freight delivery service, running between York and Philadelphia, and he built false compartments in his train cars to conceal fugitive slaves.
In 1862 Glenalvin was working in a new studio in Columbia, Pennsylvania, when a white woman in York accused him of rape; the York Daily Record later called the charges “trumped up,” but he was convicted by an all-white jury and sent to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where he spent part of 1863-64 in an unheated cellblock. His father rallied the York community and convinced Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to issue a pardon, but by then Glenalvin was sick with tuberculosis. “He may have contracted it in prison, but a number of early photographers got lung diseases from mercury vapors and other chemical fumes” that weakened their pulmonary system, West says.
When he was released from prison, Glenalvin moved to East Saginaw, Michigan. “It was part of the deal, that they move away,” says West. Glenalvin
joined a studio in Saginaw, where he worked for a time. In 1867, at the age of 38 or 39, Glenalvin Good-ridge died of tuberculosis in Minneapolis. “His family had six photographers, including his son, and they prospered in galleries for 75 years,” says West. Rhoda went on to remarry.
James Presley Ball, an imposing light-skinned man with an enormous beard, had a gallery that featured paintings, mirrors, a piano and mounted figures of goddesses draped in robes. The walls were bordered with gold leaf and flowers. The Cincinnati business was known as Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West. Among his subjects were P.T. Barnum, Frederick Douglass and the family of Ulysses S. Grant. On a trip to England with his family in 1856, Ball photographed Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.
Ball was a prominent abolitionist. His photograph of the Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin surrounded by a large group of freedom seekers is the most famous image that exists of the Underground Railroad. He published abolitionist pamphlets, and his studio was considered a stop on the route to freedom. In 1855 he oversaw the creation of a “Mammoth Pictorial Tour” of American slavery: a 600-yard-long panoramic canvas featuring painted scenes of captured Africans, slavers tossing people overboard in the Middle Passage, forced labor on plantations, runaways pursued by bloodhounds, a lynching and other brutal tableaux. First exhibited in Cincinnati and then Boston, it was displayed to audiences by slowly unwinding the gigantic canvas scroll. After Ball’s studio was destroyed by a tornado in 1860, “whites helped him rebuild,” says West. “He carried on photographing through the 1860s, and then something happened.”
After two successful decades in Cincinnati, Ball moved to Greenville, Mississippi, then Vidalia, Louisiana, then St. Louis and Minneapolis, where he opened a new studio. In 1887 he moved again to Helena, Montana, where he was celebrated as a photographer. Around 1900 he moved to Seattle, opened his last studio, and then died in Hawaii in 1904, at the age of 79. What propelled his wanderings in later life is unknown—perhaps changing climates to treat his persistent rheumatism.
Augustus Washington, born free to a formerly enslaved father and a South Asian mother in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1820 or 1821, was one of the first African American students to attend Dartmouth College. His passion for daguerreotype photography displeased the college president and angered his own family, according to an autobiographical letter written by Washington.
Washington opened a studio in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1846. Soon afterward he took an astonishing photograph of the radical abolitionist John Brown, which is now in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collections. Lifting up his right hand, as if repeating his public pledge to destroy slavery, Brown fixes the camera with an eagle-like stare. In his other hand he holds a flag believed to be the standard of the “Subterranean Pass Way,” a militant alternative to the Underground Railroad that Brown wanted to establish in the Allegheny Mountains.
Washington had a bitter hatred for slavery and racism, and after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which left free Black Americans like him vulnerable to capture as suspected slaves, he decided to emigrate to Africa. He became convinced, as he wrote, that it was “impossible” for African Americans in the United States “to develop our moral and intellectual capacities as a distinct people.” With his wife, Cordelia, and two small children, Washington sailed across the Atlantic in November 1853, under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, which promoted the colony of Liberia as a sanctuary and opportunity for African Americans.
Once in Monrovia, the country’s capital, Washington set up a daguerrean studio and, despite a bout with malaria, managed to make $500 in his first five weeks, or more than $19,000 in today’s money. He also worked as a merchant, taught Greek and Latin at a high school, built two houses for the rental income, and began cultivating sugarcane. Showing formidable ambition, he expanded his landholdings to 1,000 acres, rose to prominence in politics, opened stores and factories, and was appointed as a judge. The Liberia Herald described him as likely to become one of the colony’s “most devoted, enterprising and patriotic citizens.” He remained in Liberia until his death in 1875, describing it as “the last refuge of the oppressed colored man.”
Presumably he never imagined that his photographs would be sought after by wealthy collectors in the 21st century, nor that they might one day grace the walls of prestigious art galleries. West is glad that Washington’s work will hang in SAAM alongside Ball, Goodridge and Brady, but he is not without regrets about selling his collection.
Though the West collection is significant in placing the long-overlooked work of Black photographers in the foreground, it doesn’t contain many photographs of Black people themselves. But early this year, SAAM bought more than 400 photographs of Black Americans and abolitionists from Robert Drapkin, a physician who began collecting antique photographs in the mid-1970s. By offering distinguished images of Black Americans in the 19th century, the Drapkin holdings “complement the West collection without repeating it,” says John Jacob.
In September, SAAM will open a re-envisioned photography gallery on the second floor of the museum’s east wing—part of a multiyear overhaul of SAAM’s entire permanent collection, with an eye toward elevating historically underrepresented figures and communities. The theme of this gallery is the democratization of portraiture and the way African Americans adapted photography to represent themselves; it will include nine striking photos by Ball, along with three paintings from his contemporary Robert Duncanson, a Cincinnati-based artist who colored some of Ball’s photographic plates. The placement of the gallery is significant: midway between the museum’s galleries displaying Colonial-era works and those exhibiting its 20th-century holdings. This location “makes [the installation] a fulcrum for visual history,” says Harvey. “This emerging free Black society is now wanting to be in front of the camera and behind the camera. And so it’s really a sea change for 19th-century America encapsulated in this gallery.”