Larry West was looking for a hobby that would combine visual arts and American history. And he found it in 1975 at an antique store in Mamaroneck, N.Y. At that time, boxes of daguerreotypes — the first commercially successful photographic process, invented around 1839 — would just be sitting there, West says. So he bought one "that happened to be [of] an African American," he tells Weekend Edition. "And I was fascinated."
That purchase embarked a 45-year hobby and passion, with West collecting antique photographs from some of the early African American photographers, including James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington.
Now, his collection of 286 objects dating from the 1840s to about 1925, which includes daguerreotypes and other early types of photographic works, has been sold to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Stebich, the museum's director, calls it "a transformative collection for us." The museum had to compete with other top institutions to acquire it.
Daguerreotypes were widely popular in the 1840s and 1850s and it's estimated that 3 to 5 million were made in the United States. But only 30,000 to 40,000 still exist. That number is even smaller for the daguerreotypes that came from these first African American studios, which number around 166 for Ball, Goodridge and Washington, according to the Smithsonian.
West collected 40 of them, making them "as rare as hen's teeth," Stebich says. The purchase means the museum now owns the largest collection of daguerreotypes by these three Black photographers.
The daguerreotypes are portraits of both Black and white subjects. And they could be customized to fit into rings, brooches, or in customized frames and sizes. "To know that early [African] American photographers were doing this kind of work is something we knew, but I would tell you that we have overlooked. It's a story that's been marginalized. And now this will be a story that we will spotlight once again," Stebich says.
Part of that story is a glimpse into the fashion, interests and daily lives of Black Americans during the underground railroad and abolitionist movements. Glenalvin Goodridge's father was a major underground railroad figure and will be featured in a segment dedicated to that movement when the collection is publicly available. "This is going to help tell new stories," West says.
The collection likely won't be on display until 2023, and the museum is in search for a funder for further research into West's extensive library.
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., now has one of the largest collections of early antique photographic works taken by Black photographers. Many of the images are daguerreotypes from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the first public form of photography that used specially treated, silver-plated copper sheets to capture images. It's a method that a trio of prominent African American photographers - James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington - used to capture portraits of historic figures from the underground railroad and abolitionist movements. Larry West collected nearly 300 of these objects for more than four decades, and his collection will now be on public display and researched at the Smithsonian. Larry West joins me now. Hi there, Larry. Thanks so much.
LARRY WEST: It's good to meet you, Asma.
KHALID: Can you first explain what a daguerreotype is and why they're so important when we're talking about the history of photography?
WEST: OK, so they are the first photographs appearing in - about 1840, lasting about 15 years. This is - photography at the time is the hottest thing since sliced bread.
KHALID: So, Larry, take us back to the beginning in terms of why you began collecting these old antique photographic works.
WEST: Well, I was always extremely attracted to American history and, frankly, looking for a great hobby that would take me across visual arts. So I read an article, called the dealer that wrote the article, and we went out looking in antique stores at what they had. And back then, in the '70s, you could go in antique stores and often find a box of daguerreotypes. They were just sitting there. And I bought my first daguerreotype then, happened to be an African American, and I was fascinated.
KHALID: Your own research analysis helped you actually identify who some of the people were in these photographs. Is that right?
WEST: I guess we can take a step back and say that it was estimated there were, I don't know, 3 to 5 million daguerreotypes that were made. Not that many survived. Though what I found from doing my studies - I looked at who owns the Ball, Washington and Goodridge daguerreotypes, the three African American pioneers. Where are they, institutionally and personally? Couldn't come up with more than 175 in existence anywhere. And there's only 25 to maybe 50 at the most that are in private hands, that are ever going to be available. And with these three guys, we have a luxury. They almost every single time sold their images stamped in the mail. Their name is there, their gallery name. And that's not true of most daguerreotypes. The vast, vast majority are anonymous.
KHALID: So, Larry, what drew you to specifically collecting daguerreotypes from these three African American photographers who had studios at the time? Why are you so drawn to their work in particular?
WEST: I guess 'cause the tremendous respect I have for - that they succeeded. They succeeded in basically a white world. And that's who was the very, very primary customer of these - of Ball, Washington and Goodridge. We also had built into here - into the collections in the Smithsonian - a very large segment on the underground railroad. And Goodridge, one of these three Black pioneers, was involved in that somewhat, especially because his father was a major underground railroad figure in York, Penn.
KHALID: Larry, I want to ask you about what it means to you personally to have visitors to the museum publicly see this collection that you had been privately building for so many years.
WEST: I want them to see my primary theme that Black plus white equals success. It spans from all the white people who were using these African American photographers - OK? - all the time, and Ball was one of the biggest in the whole western United States. He opened multiple galleries. He was the man. You wanted your portrait done out there, you went to Ball. And when a tornado tore out his whole gallery - OK? - in one year and there was nothing left in his book - every single thing was gone - white people came in, and they paid and bought him a whole new gallery.
KHALID: Larry West is a historian and collector of 19th century photography.
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