Rare Slave Photograph Found

11 Jun

The Civil War occurred right about the time photography became commercially available in the United States. While there a few pictures by intrepid experimenters going back to the late 1840’s, principally Daguerreotypes in Europe. The craze hit the US in the 1850’s, with the development of two other technologies to make prints, the Calotype, and the more commercially successful albumen based technology, initially the Collodion process which led to Ambrotypes and Tintypes by the time of the War. As such, it is possible to roughly date a surviving photograph by the process used. I have one Daguerreotype in my personal collection, of two men, one of which is reputed to be an ggg-uncle, and the other is my ggg-grandfather taken in the 1850’s. I don’t know which is which, nor the circumstances of why the photograph was taken – since at that time a photograph would have cost well over a weeks wages for your average worker. The other oddity is that both men are carrying rifles.

Photographs were still fairly expensive, so the subject matter tended to be people with means. Until the 1870’s when the process became common, and photographers wandered America taking pictures of everything from babies to bad guys. So it is exceedingly rare to find photographs of slaves. Apparently, in this case a slave merchant hit upon the idea of photographing slaves as a methodology to keep records…

Hat Tip – NewsOne!

Rare Slave Photograph Found In North Carolina Attic

RALEIGH, N.C. – A haunting 150-year-old photo found in a North Carolina attic shows a young black child named John, barefoot and wearing ragged clothes, perched on a barrel next to another unidentified young boy.

Art historians believe it’s an extremely rare Civil War-era photograph of children who were either slaves at the time or recently emancipated.

The photo, which may have been taken in the early 1860s, was a testament to a dark part of American history, said Will Stapp, a photographic historian and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs department at the Smithsonian Institution.

“It’s a very difficult and poignant piece of American history,” he said. “What you are looking at when you look at this photo are two boys who were victims of that history.”

In April, the photo was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, accompanied by a document detailing the sale of John for $1,150, not a small sum in 1854.

New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document. Morgan said the deceased owner of the home where the photo was found was thought to be a descendant of John.

A portrait of slave children is rare, Morgan said.

“I buy stuff all the time, but this shocked me,” he said.

What makes the picture an even more compelling find is that several art experts said it was created by the photography studio of Mathew Brady, a famous 19th-century photographer known for his portraits of historical figures such as President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Stapp said the photo was probably not taken by Brady himself but by Timothy O’Sullivan, one of Brady’s apprentices. O’Sullivan took a multitude of photos depicting the carnage of the Civil War.

In 1862, O’Sullivan famously photographed a group of some of the first slaves liberated after Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said.

The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long.

“To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.

Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery.

“I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”

For now, Morgan said, he is keeping the photo in his personal collection, but he said he has had an inquiry to sell the photo to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said he is considering participating in the creation of a video documentary about John.

“This kid was abused and mistreated and people forgot about him,” Morgan said. “He doesn’t even exist in history. And to know that there were a million children who were like him. I’ve never seen another photo like that that speaks so much for children.”


Posted by on June 11, 2010 in Black History


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2 responses to “Rare Slave Photograph Found

  1. lola gets

    June 12, 2010 at 1:51 AM

    I, too, have several daguerrotypes, tintypes and late 19th century photos from my ancestors, and I treasure them greatly. Im going scanning them and posting them on my blog soon, so please come by and check them out!

    I have many issues surrounding the circumstances of these photos becoming public. How come no descendants wanted them? How much did they really make from the sale of these items? And many other questions. But I guess the fact that theyve been made public is a good thing.



    • btx3

      June 12, 2010 at 12:02 PM

      Kool! I will definitely check those out, Lola!

      My Dad and his brother inherited a big old house from their father in West Virginia. The house was old enough to have bullet holes in the closet doors from the Civil War, and at least one patched wall where a cannonball had come through. When my Dad and Uncle left West Virginia, they rented the house to a family of four. They stayed in that house for near 60 years. The wife died, the children died – until all that was left was the man. The “rent”, if you could call it that was to pay the County taxes every year. One day, several years before the wife passed, and just after one of the children had been killed in an accident my dad called me an my brothers, my uncle and his sons in for a meeting, asking if any of us wanted the house and property. No one did, so he offered to “sell” the house to the man for $1 – such that the man would have something to pass to his surviving child. Within 3 years both the wife and surviving child were dead…

      The now “old man” died 2 years back, alone – after living in that house by himself for near 20 years. He had no-one to leave the house to.



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