When you walk into the Cincinnati Museum Center’s rotunda you’ll see huge banners heralding exhibitions and Omnimax films. But it’s a shame you won’t see mention of the wonderful show of J.P. Ball photographs in the low-profile Ruthven Gallery, on the lower level of the building near the entrance to the Children’s Museum. The exhibition is small but ambitious and warrants more attention.
Not only does it trace the life of Ball — 19th-century African-American photographer, entrepreneur and abolitionist — but it also reveals the history of early photography as well as introduces some prominent Cincinnati historical figures.
The Cincinnati Historical Society holds 440 photographs by Ball, and more than 50 are on view in the exhibition. Many are daguerreotypes — delicate, one-of-a-kind, exquisitely beautiful photographs made on glass. They are so fragile, in fact, that owners had to keep them protected under glass inside lovely velvet-lined cases. There is something so precious and evocative about a daguerreotype. Its polished, silvery surface depicts a person long gone, but being mirror-like, it also reflects your own image back at you, as if confronting you with your own mortality.
Daguerreotypes demanded long exposure times, requiring sitters to hold completely still for up to one minute. Even the slightest movement would cause a blurred image. A re-creation of a Victorian portrait studio at the beginning of the exhibit reveals the solution to this problem — behind the velvet upholstered chair stands a head brace, a u-shaped clamp that held the subject’s head in position.
Many of the portraits in the exhibition are unidentified, forming an anonymous social history. Other subjects are known and range from founders of influential Cincinnati institutions to figures of national prominence such as Frederick Douglass (pictured). Ball was reported to have taken Queen Victoria’s picture, but no document has yet been uncovered. His incredible success as an early photographer is made even more remarkable by the fact that Ball was African-American in an age when slavery was still legal just over the Ohio River. Making it as a photographer in 19th-century Cincinnati was no easy task for anyone, given there were about 30 studios in business. Yet Ball’s business flourished against the odds.
Part of Ball’s success stemmed from his willingness to embrace new photographic technology. The exhibition progresses from his daguerreotypes to later forms of photography. Daguerreotypes made portraiture accessible to those who could not afford paintings, but they were still pricey and unique objects. The development of the carte-de-visite (visiting card) broadened the possibilities of photographic portraiture.
These photo calling cards could be produced in multiples of eight, using a special camera with four lenses. Visitors could leave them at the homes of friends. Not only did they provide a visual record of the day’s callers, but these pocket-sized images also offered studios a way to advertise their services, with the business’s name printed on the back. Carte-de-visites were small, portable and mailable, making it possible for the exchange of images between loved ones during the Civil War.
Period objects relating to the images lend the show an extra dimension. Three small dioramas feature period clothing, furniture and a camera. Seven cases hold the photographs, surrounded by items like jewelry, cameos, hair ornaments, and toys. Examples of early photo albums and carte-de-visite viewers reveal how people collected and preserved images of their friends and relatives. In most cases, the objects did not belong to the sitters in the portraits.
However, the portrait of Civil War soldier Henry Daggett appears with the young man’s diary, his scrawled handwriting connecting personally to his likeness. I was especially moved to discover that Daggett died “from eating ‘green fruit’” two years after the photograph was taken. Of course, all the subjects in the exhibition are now dead, and perhaps that is part of the gravity of these portraits from another time. We see the eyes of individuals who shared our same dreams, pitfalls and aspirations — especially the very human desire to be remembered. Early photography offered them that chance.
AMERICAN JOURNEY: THE LIFE AND PHOTOGRAPHY OF JAMES PRESLEY BALL is on view at the Cincinnati Museum Center through Oct. 24. Get details here.