News & Politics

Smithsonian Acquires a Historic Collection Featuring Early Black Photographers

Larry J. West's rare collection, including images from the first African American studios, will be added to SAAM's permanent collection.

Unidentified artist, Untitled (woman with hair ribbon), undated, sixth-plate ambrotype. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Early American Photography, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L. Denghausen Endowment

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.

G. J. Goodridge, Mrs. Glenalvin Goodridge (Rhoda), 1859, sixth-plate ambrotype. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Early African American Photography, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L. Denghausen Endowment.

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.”

Unidentified artist, Untitled (brooch, man with goatee), undated, albumen print in metal setting. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Photographic Jewelry, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L. Denghausen Endowment.

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Editorial Fellow

Anne Tate, originally from Annapolis, MD, joined Washingtonian in July 2021. She is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studied journalism and psychology.