Black Photographer James Presley Ball like a lot of others made tremendous contributions to art and history but few know of him.
by Lonnie Dawkins
J.P. Ball at one time was considered the best photographer in the Cincinnati area and later one of the best and most successful in the nation, yet few people have ever heard of him. Prior to this study this writer’s knowledge of famous African American photographers was limited to James Van der Zee and those who came afterwards such as Gordon Parks and Monetta J. Sleet. Though not renown today for his work, Ball might very well be worthy of being a peer to other better known photographers such as Matthew Brady. It seems that Ball’s peers are often limited to other African American photographers such as Augusta Washington, Daniel Freeman, and Jules Lion. A closer look at his work as revealed in the book J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer by Deborah Willis clearly shows that this was a photographer who has left a treasure.
Born a free man in Virginia in 1825, Ball was a not only an extremely successful Daguerrean/photographer but was a businessman and dabbled in politics later in his life becoming a Montana delegate to the Republican convention in 1894. His reputation spanned from his beginnings in Virginia to Cincinnati to Minneapolis to Montana to Seattle and finally to Hawaii. He produced hundreds of photographs of the white, black, and Chinese community. He was the official photographer of the 25th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and photographed the construction of the Montana state capital. Many of his studio portraits and photographs of public events are archived by the Montana Historical Society. His photographs chronicle a changing community. They depict immigrants from Asia and Europe as well as migrants from all over the United States.[i]
The book J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer by Deborah Willis includes about 300 of Ball’s pictures including people of all walks of life. Mostly it includes portraits of what appears to be well to do people. This collection clearly shows that Ball had a vast array of clients who sought out his work. Curiously it seems that each person has their left arm leaning on a chair, post, or table. There are wonderful group pictures including families and schools. Almost all pictures are of people and only a few are of buildings. Each portrait shows the studio that Ball owned at the time. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Albumen prints, carte-de-visite and Albumen cabinet card are the mediums.
Highlight of the book is the pictures of William Biggerstaff which is discussed shortly and the Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, & C. and the pamphlet that accompanied it.
J. P. Ball’s great contribution to history and photography is his coverage of the injustices of slavery and the lynchings that took place in the 1900. He used his photographic skills to expose the abhorrent institution of slavery by promoting antislavery activities. [ii] Deborah Willis, historian and photographer in her book Reflections in Black, A History of Black Photographers 1840 to Present reflects on how “visual representations of black people commonly produced on postcards and sheet music depicted exaggerated features and demeaning situations that have left enduring negative impact, one that has endured to this day.” Ball’s photography and the work of other black photographers contradicted this by showing more realistic depictions of both ordinary and famous people. “Most of their African-American clients wanted to celebrate their achievements and establish a counter image that conveyed a sense of self and self-worth.”[iii]
William Biggerstaff Lynching
One of his most moving documentation was the photography of the lynching of William Biggerstaff. In a series of photographs Biggerstaff who was accused of murder is first pictured in a suit with a flower pinned to his lapel and a handkerchief in his pocket. The timing was Montana in 1854 shortly before Biggerstaff; a former slave was to be hung for the crime of murdering a man. The next picture is one of Biggerstaff being hanged, again dressed in a suit. Finally, he is shown in a in a casket dressed in a suit. These pictures brought dignity and humanity to a black man.
Margo Jefferson describes some other photography of lynchings thusly as pictures of perpetrators and spectators who treated lynchings as family affairs, civic celebrations, picnics (the preferred terms was “ Negro barbecue”) and some kind of sexual catharsis. A lot of the men have rugged dusty look of bit players in old westerns, and the strike movie attitudes for the camera or clasp the ankles of the dead man sternly”. Some wear white shirts, ties and straw boaters. (One young man with immaculately styled hair looks dressed to call on his sweetheart once the lynching’s done.) “[iv] Ball made an important contribution to history by showing how these people were human beings with families and dignity.
At the same time he took pictures of a vast variety of people famous and unknown, slaves and freemen. His sitters included Frederick Douglass, Henry H. Garnet, Jenny Lind, and Ulysses S. Grant.[v] Even early in his career it was stated that “Ball was able to attract clients to his rented room: “The Virginians rushed in crowds to his room; all classes, white and black, bond and free sought to have their lineaments, stamped by the artist who painted with the Sun’s rays.””
Ball is famous for his abolitionist work and his photo panorama: Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, & C. This work 2,400 square foot antislavery photo panorama and accompanying charted the slave experience through images of the life in Africa, the horrors of the middle passage, and daily routines in America. It included portraits, cityscapes, and significant events in the history of slavery. It was displayed at Ball’s studio and at an 1855 exhibit at Boston’s Armory Hall.[vi] This work was in conjunction with Robert S. Duncan and African American landscape artist.
Deborah Willis Research
Currently there is not a lot of information available about photographers such as James Presley Ball. The authority on his work and on black photography is Deborah Willis. Every effort to research seems to point back to her work. Just as James van der Zee was relatively unknown until about 1969 but now is prominently recognized as having made a tremendous contribution to photography, it is very likely that in the coming years that James Presley Ball and others like Augusta Washington and Daniel Freeman will likely receive their proper recognition as prominent photographers.
Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, & C.
[ii] Willis, Deborah, Reflections in Black, A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, New York, 2000, page XVII
[iii]Ibid, page XVII
[v] Willis, Deborah, ed. J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer, New York, 1993
[vi] Ibid, page XVI