Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rare photograph?

There seems to be a lot of stir in the news media about a recent photograph of “slaves” found in an attic in Charlotte. As the story goes, the photograph was made by famed photographer Matthew Brady of two slave boys in the early 1860s. I found 89 mentions of this article in various newspapers across the nation. Most of these are reprints of the Associated Press piece that you can read here.

However, the purchase has come with some controversy. An additional article from the Associated Press states that “critics have located other similar images of the two children in ragged clothes on eBay and at a digital archive of the New York Public Library.” You can read this whole article here.

In a recent article from Dr. Mary Niall Mitchell (University of New Orleans), the photograph has come under close scrutiny. The gist of Dr. Mitchell’s interesting article can be found in these two paragraphs:

The basic story about the discovery and subsequent dispute over the photograph’s provenance, is as follows. A collector named Keya Morgan recently purchased the album containing the photograph, found in an attic in North Carolina, for $30,000. He also purchased, at the same sale, for $20,000, a deed of sale for a slave named John, valued at $1,150 in 1854. The deed seems to have been represented to Morgan as the sale document for one of the boys in the photograph, but this link seems unlikely. The price is awfully high for an infant in that period, which is what either boy in the photograph would have been at the time of sale if the picture had been taken in the 1860s. Subsequent digging by the AP and others found what seems to be the original petition for the sale in the Digital Archive of Slavery, which suggests that the slave John, mentioned in the deed, was twenty-seven or twenty-eight in 1854.

Bringing further attention to the photograph was the initial attribution of the image to someone in Matthew Brady’s photographic studio (the caption beneath Morgan’s photograph reads simply “Brady”). If a link to the famous Civil War photographer could be confirmed, perhaps it could justify the high sale price. Web searches by a blogger named Kate Marcus and a collector named Sherry Howard, however, found other copies of this image in stereoscope format (meant to be seen through a 3-D like viewfinder popular from the mid- to late nineteenth century). One copy recently sold on eBay for $163, and another is in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Both are attributed to J.N. Wilson, a photographer active in Savannah, Georgia in the 1870s and 1880s, and seem to have been part of a series of “Plantation Scenes.” The caption in the NYPL catalog (which presumably appears on card’s verso) reads: “Plantation Scene; Happy Little Nigs.”

Want more? A piece by Kate Marcus, that was on Before It’s News (strangely, it has been removed), disproved much of the provenience of the piece. You can catch pieces of Marcus’s article in this article from USA Today.

It does appears that New York collector Keya Morgan got taken for a sum of $50,000. Sure wish he would have sent the money to CWPT instead.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Great story. Thanks. I had read the AP article about the purchase of the "rare photograph" of "slaves" and immediately recognized at least two jumps to conclusions! And then, the rather automatic connection with a bill of sale! How could a collector of historic photographs be so easily duped?

Apparently, the fact that these boys were barefooted and their clothes were worn meant that they were slaves and "abused." By these specifications, I think people would have thought my mother, a white girl born during the Depression, a slave and "abused."