History & Timeline


After its invention in 1839, photography became immediately intertwined with portraiture, both as a documentary tool and often as a replacement for traditional portrait painting; photography was considered to capture truth. As studios became more prolific, and photography less expensive, more and more people could have access to images of themselves.

Photography has had a long and intense history as a medium that can easily be used for or against an agenda. From our collection we have representative images from the 1850s to 1950s. This is a time period that was strife with issues in regard to the depiction of women, the poor, minorities, and the disabled among other groups. For African Americans, early imagery included exploitative “anthropological” imagery created by those who treated non-white races as examples of “otherness.” As access to photography increased, the imagery created by individuals for their own use expanded to more personal portraits, and the commemoration of events and relationships.

In the course of those 100 years, images have flooded our experience. Photography is now considered to be the most democratic of mediums, as cameras have come into common public use, image making is a normal and often daily activity for those with a modern cell phone or digital camera. In the relatively short span of one hundred and seventy five years, photography has made amazing strides alongside the cultural growth of our society.

The documentation of women in our society has followed these lines. What we would like to share are the everyday images of African American women in the United States from the early days of photography to the 1950’s. These photographs depict unidentified women from all ages and walks of life and represent their experiences in the form of traditional portraits to snapshots that capture moments of importance.



This early period of photography created the first opportunities for people to have a likeness of themselves, which were relatively affordable when compared to having a painted or drawn portrait.

The tintypes in this case are from a family bible collected by Ms. Mundy in Cincinnati. The bible contains a section of pages that create a small album with carte-de-visite sized openings.

These images are photographs made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of iron that is blackened by painting, lacquering or enameling and is used as a support for a collodion photographic emulsion. They were a less expensive process following the daguerreotype.

Photographers Margaret Denton Smith, Mary Louise Tucker, and Jules Lion, a freeman of color, introduced the daguerreotype process to New Orleans in 1840. There were many active African American portrait photographers in this era. Of special note are Augustus Washington and John Presley Ball who had studios and created significant work in this period. Ball photographed P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind, and Queen Victoria among other notable persons.


In 1900 the Kodak Brownie box roll-film camera was introduced. Also during this decade the first color film was created by the Lumiere Brothers in France, Nippon Kogaku K.K. which would eventually become Nikon was created, and Alfred Stieglitz organizes the “Photo Secessionist” show in New York City. African American photographers of note include, but are not limited to, Addison N. Scurlock, Cornelius Battey, Arthur P. Bedou, and Edward Elcha.


The photographers Man Ray, Andre Kertesz, Karl Bossfeldt, Eugene Atget, and many more are at work. Fuji Photo Film is founded, Kodachrome and Technicolor film for movies are created. Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, and others are hired by the Farm Securities Administration to photograph rural hardship. Their African American contemporaries were James VanDerZee, James Latimer Allen, Prentice H. Polk, photojournalists Morgan and Marvin Smith, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Scurlock Studios (Addison and Sons), and many more. Of special note is Gordon Parks, who won a fellowship with the FSA, was also a freelance photographer for Vogue, and later a writer and photographer for LIFE Magazine.


World War II begins, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Carl Myadans and W. Eugene Smith cover the war for LIFE Magazine. The Magnum picture agency is created, Hasselblad introduces the medium format camera. Edward Steichen curates the Family of Man exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. African American photojournalist Richard Saunders, as well as Roy DeCarava, Charles “Chuck” Stewart, Bob Moore, Ernest C. Withers, Joe Flowers, and Marion James Porter and many others were active in this period.