Not all cowboys or gold miners in the Old West were white, as proved by the works of 19th-century black photographer J.P. Ball, who ranged the country from Ohio to Montana. The black pride era of the 1960s had an antecedent long ago in Marcus Garvey's 1920s back-to-Africa movement, photographed extensively by James Van Der Zee.
Interest in these and other works of black photographers, dating from the earliest development of the art, blossomed after the 1968 publication of Van Der Zee's "Harlem on My Mind," a visual chronicle of the life of black Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance. Black photographers began to gain recognition as part of the history they had recorded from behind the lens. The names of black photographers such as P.K. Polk and C.M. Battey of Tuskegee Institute and the District's Addison Scurlock became familiar to students of the art.
From its invention, photography has served as a visual record of personal, political and cultural history. Long before the popularity of the family snapshot, the medium was significant in chronicling black life in America.
Obscure photographers, trained through schools, clubs and apprenticeships in news, portrait and aerial photography, documented everything from the scenes in a huckster's salon to the corpses laid out for at-home wakes.
Roland Freeman was fully cognizant of this tradition when he began shooting pictures in 1961 for his "Southern Roads/City Pavements" collection, now on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Freeman, who lives in the District, said he sought to "use photographic documentation for historical preservation" of vanishing black folklife.
"I'm talking about people who are blacksmiths, quilters, people who make baskets, church music," said the 47-year-old Baltimore native. His 117 pictures on exhibit at the Corcoran can be seen through March 13.
"That's the same thing Van Der Zee and Polk were doing. But they just didn't call it that," said Freeman, referring to the older black photographers who specialized in personages and scenes.
Recent research on blacks in photography has produced at least one exhibit and two books. "One Hundred Years of Black Photography," an exhibit the Rhode Island School of Design will open next month, is scheduled to be shown at Howard University in February 1984.
Deborah Willis-Thompson, a photography specialist at Manhattan's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has compiled a book of biographical information about the artists whose works are in the exhibit.
John Jezierski, a history professor at Michigan's Saginaw Valley State College, is writing a yet-untitled book on the Goodridge brothers, a family of black photographers in the Midwest.
The Rhode Island School's exhibition includes one of the District's earliest known black photographers, Daniel Freeman, whose work records the customs and scenery of turn-of-the-century Washington. Freeman, who opened a studio here in 1885, developed the unusual technique of placing a charcoal sketch over the photographic image. Several of his works, including portraits of Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, a Virginia congressman during Reconstruction, remain in private collections.
Jules Lion, a free black Frenchman who emigrated to New Orleans in 1837, is thought to have been the first black photographer in America, according to the Schomburg's Willis-Thomas.
By 1840, Lion was advertising in the New Orleans Bee as that city's first daguerreotype photographer, using the process developed by French painter Louis Jacques Daguerre, one of the originators of photography. The daguerreotype method involved developing images on chemically treated metal and glass.
Lion shot landscapes, portraits, street scenes, buildings, and--according to his advertisements--"the sick or the dead." His work, including a portrait of naturalist John Audubon, is featured in the Historic New Orleans Collection, a public museum devoted to the city's past.
About the same time, Glen Alvin Goodridge opened a studio in the mid-1840s in York, Pa. Twenty years later, Goodridge and his younger brothers, William and Walter, opened a studio in Saginaw, Mich. which remained in family hands until the 1920s. According to Jezierski, the Goodridge brothers' business was a widely used photo laboratory for processing portraits, X-rays and other photographic work.
According to Willis-Thomas, the younger Goodridges contracted with what is now the U.S. Department of Interior to photograph the Saginaw Valley.
In Cincinnati, J.P. Ball opened Ball's Daguerrean Gallery of the West in 1847. During his career of more than half a century, Ball photographed urban scenes, lynchings, and buffalo soldiers, the black post-Civil War cavalrymen sent out to fight Indians in the Southwest. He specialized in cartes-de-visite, popular 3 1/2-by-4-inch cardboard calling cards with a photo of the person on one side and an ad for the studio on the other. Ball opened galleries in Helena, Mont., and later in Seattle, Wash., where his son, J.P. Ball Jr., carried on the family business.
Although many of the earliest black photographers were self-taught, it was not unusual for black men, like Mississippi Rep. John R. Lynch, to apprentice with white photographers. During the Civil War, a black man, Thomas Rudder, was listed as an apprentice to famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
Because of the cumbersome nature of the early cameras, photography was not considered a suitable occupation for women, according to Michael Winston, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Research has uncovered the 1890s works of two black women photographers, however, Hattie Baker of Cleveland, Ohio, and Fannie J. Thompson of Memphis, Tenn., although little is known of their lives, according to Willis-Thomas.
Near the turn of the century, Addison Scurlock, the District's most noted black photographer, began an apprenticeship with the Moses P. Rice studio on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1911, Scurlock opened his own studio on U Street NW, where he made his reputation with dramatic portraits of such figures as Booker T. Washington, poet James Weldon Johnson and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell.
During the first three decades of the century, C.M. Battey, who would later be succeeded by Polk, left New York to become the official photographer of Tuskegee Institute and Van Der Zee began to chronicle black life in Harlem.
Segregation in the District generally did not extend into the photographers' studios and it was difficult for many black photograhers to survive, Winston said, "when blacks could go to a prestigious white studio." Not unexpectedly, a fierce rivalry developed between Scurlock and A. Hertzel Brown, the city's leading black photographers. Brown had a studio on T Street NW.
"You couldn't have a wedding, funeral, graduation without Scurlock. Unless he took the picture it wasn't official," said photographer Robert H. McNeill, who retired as chief of photography in the State Department's audiovisual division in 1978.
McNeill, a Washington native, became interested in photography while attending Dunbar High School and saved $70 in dimes in a cigar box to buy one of his first cameras. He attended the New York Institute of Photography in the late 1930s and later worked on a federal project photographing blacks in Virginia.
Although many of the black freelance photographers were shooting for historical documentation, others sought financial gain. One popular practice to increase profits was taking group pictures and selling a print to each person in the shot.
McNeill said it was not unusual for photographers to cruise the streets of Washington on Sunday afternoons in search of white-uniformed church ushers or conventioneers. Other staples for the freelancers included graduations, yearbook pictures, weddings, and corpses laid out in the home.
Many blacks, like William J. Scott, who worked for the Scurlock studio for 29 years, were trained as news photographers. But, unable to get employment at the white newspapers in the city, they freelanced for black newspapers, including the Afro-American, the St. Louis Argus, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
Scott, who apprenticed with an established white photographer in his native Woburn, Mass., before coming to the Washington Afro-American, did freelance work for Flash, a picture magazine owned by the founders of the McGuire Funeral Home, and Our World, a black publication styled after Look magazine.
World War II broadened opportunities for blacks in photography; many received photo reproduction training in the armed services. For others, like Gordon Parks, who photographed agricultural lands for the Farm Security Administration, government service led to commercial careers.
In the post-war years, Scurlock's son, Robert, founded and ran the Capital School of Photography from 1948 to 1953. The faculty included McNeill; Scott, who later organized the photo lab at the Moorland-Spingarn center, and De Witt Keith, who preceded McNeill at the State Department and shot the photo of John Foster Dulles used on a 3-cent stamp.
The student body included Ellsworth J. Davis, who became the first black photographer hired by a major metropolitan newspaper when he joined The Washington Post in 1961, and a young Jacqueline Bouvier, later Kennedy and Onassis. CAPTION: Picture 1, Roland Freemane with Darian and Gregory Rowland, 12, next to their photo he took in 1976. The photo is one of 117 he has on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. BY HARRY NALTCHAYAN -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Addison Scurlock the District's most noted black photographer, with his wife. Scurlock opened his studio in 1911 on U Street NW and made a reputation with dramatic portraits.; Picture 3, Robert H. McNeil retired in 1978 as chief of photography in the State Department's audio-visual division. He bought one of his first cameras with $70 in dimes he saved.; Picture 4, William J. Scott apprenticed with an established white photographer. He worked for Addison Scurlock's studio for 28 years and freelanced for black picture magazine. Photos 3 and 4 by VANESSA BARNES HILLIAN -- The Washington Post