Whether it’s capturing photos that exude Black joy or pictures that display resiliency in the face of oppression, African American photographers have historically tapped into the power of imagery to give a glimpse into their experiences. Images captured by the first Black photographers are making their way to the Smithsonian, The New York Times reported.
The photos were collected by Larry West, a former mergers and acquisitions specialist who had a passion for compiling artifacts that are embedded in the fabric of American history. Nearly 46 years ago, he came across a daguerreotype photo of an African American man at a Mamaroneck, New York-based antique store and purchased it for $10.70. Created during the 1800s, this type of photography was the first publicly accessible photographic process. Cognizant of its historic significance, West set out on a quest to find images that exhibited the role African American innovators played in shaping the early beginnings of photography.
Among his collection of 286 relics are 40 daguerreotypes from the 1840s through the 1920s taken by Black photographers Augustus Washington, James P. Ball and Glenalvin Goodridge. Black photographers elevated the daguerreotype form; an element of untapped history that hasn’t been widely shared. The photos that were acquired also include images of abolitionists. “We see beauty, we see fashion,” photography historian Dr. Deborah Willis, who is a commissioner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told the news outlet. “We see these multidimensional experiences of Black men and women during that time period. Not only the challenges or ‘suffering’ of the Black body, but stories of Black men and women who were entrepreneurs, who had dreams, who were motivated by the politics of the time.” The historic photos are slated to go on public view during the fall of 2023.
Several initiatives have been launched to preserve photos connected to Black history. Getty Images is providing grants for the digitization of historic HBCU images.