In 1975, 19th-century photography historian and collector Larry J. West bought his first daguerreotype—an image depicting an African American man in a tuxedo. After more than 45 years of building his collection of early American photography, West has found a new home for his rare pieces.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) purchased 286 objects dating back to the 1840s through the mid-1920s from West’s collection, including 40 daguerreotypes (an early form of photography made on polished metal plates), by prominent, 19th-century Black photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington. This acquisition makes SAAM the caretaker of the largest collection of daguerreotypes by these photographers, surpassing the Library of Congress’ collection of 26, the museum says.
Additionally, the collection—which the New York Times reports occasioned a purchase price in the mid-six figures— includes photographs of diverse portrait subjects and objects related to abolitionists, the Underground Railroad and the role of women entrepreneurs in it, and photographic jewelry. The museum also acquired West’s extensive library, including details about his research, analysis and conservation of the collection, and his metrics for authenticating individual works.
The artworks will join SAAM’s permanent collection, and selected pieces will be at the forefront of its forthcoming early American photography gallery, themed “the democratization or portraiture,” the museum says.
“The near absence of diverse portrait sitters and non-white photographers from many early American photography collections, including SAAM’s, is ahistorical,” says John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at SAAM. “Significantly, SAAM now can show an inclusive history of photography, with African Americans among its earliest practitioners, conveying to viewers their contributions as innovators and entrepreneurs.”