Smithsonian Purchases Rare Photographs from First African American Studios

The passion of a collector comes to the Smithsonian American Art Museum: An unidentified artist took this undated ambrotype — similar to a daguerreotype but with a glass plate — of a woman with a book, from the L. J. West Collection of Early American Photography. (Credit…Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Larry West was a mergers and acquisitions specialist when he happened upon an article in The New York Post in 1975 that said antique photographs were on the verge of becoming the next big collectible. Inspired, he walked into a shop in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and came across a daguerreotype — an early form of photography, made on highly polished metal plates that is almost startling in its hologram-like effect. It depicted an African American man in a tuxedo, elegantly posed before the camera. West purchased it for $10.70.

“Including tax,” he said with a laugh in a phone interview.

The find kicked off West’s 45-year-long passion — some might say obsession — with daguerreotypes, as objects of beauty and as records of American history, including the active role African Americans played as both makers and consumers of photography from its earliest invention.

Now, an important segment of his collection, most of which has never been on public view, has been purchased by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C., an event that Stephanie Stebich, the museum’s director, called “a coup.” The museum said the purchase price was in the mid-six figures.

The group of 286 objects, dating from the 1840s to the mid-1920s, includes a cache of 40 daguerreotypes made by three of the most prominent Black photographers of the 19th century, James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington, making SAAM’s the largest collection of such work in the country, and surpassing the 26 daguerreotypes by these photographers at the Library of Congress, the museum said.

Included in the purchase is an extensive collection of photographic jewelry — intimate objects that were made to be worn on the body, embedded with tiny daguerreotypes or other types of photographs, perhaps along with locks of hair. West calls the group made by and for African Americans “the rarest of the rare.”

Rounding out the acquisition are portraits of abolitionists and photographs related to the Underground Railroad, with special attention to the women — both Black and white — who worked to raise money for the operation.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Aruna D’Souza