Representing Race and Spectacular Violence in the Work of J.P. Ball
Shona Thompson | Lancaster University
*This article contains violent images that some readers may find upsetting
Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an
American national spectacle for centuries
- Elizabeth Alexander
Photography has offered up Black bodies, particularly pained Black bodies, for possession and consumption by audiences since Louis Daguerre first invented the process of recording images onto silver-plated copper in 1839. Named after the inventor, daguerreotypes were the first commercially-produced photographs. As news of the invention crossed the Atlantic (along with the knowledge of how to produce such images), daguerreotypists in the US immediately began to categorize and document the bodies of enslaved people. The photographs were used to support developing scientific theories on the origins of human races. Prominent scholars such as the biologist Louis Agassiz—who commissioned the artist Joseph Thomas Zealy in 1850 to photograph enslaved Africans named Jack, Drana, Jem, Alfred, Fassena, Renty, and Delia to provide evidence for his theory of separate creations—used photography to develop highly racialised visual conventions which objectified, dehumanised, and exoticised enslaved Black bodies. The spectacularisation of racial violence has been central to American visual culture ever since. From the ships, auction blocks, and plantations of American slavery to public torture, lynchings, and rape, through to current video-recorded beatings and shootings by law enforcement officers today, suffering Black bodies have been exploited and consumed. These bodies are evidence of how American visual culture has been shaped by, and contributed to, spectacular racial violence. This influence can be seen most strikingly in the photographs that were produced in tandem with the rise of spectacle lynching in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Perpetrating mobs took inspiration from a rapidly evolving visual culture which moved relentlessly towards immersive and enthralling spectacles. Staged as theatrical extravaganzas, photographed, sound-recorded, and paraded through public spaces, Black people’s bodies were violently sacrificed for a vulnerable White identity that would seek to destroy the perceived threat of Black success and civility in the wake of emancipation.
This article will explore how the life and works of African American daguerreotypist J.P. Ball challenged this violence. Born free in Virginia in 1825, by the end of his eighty-year life Ball would become the most celebrated Black daguerreotypist and photographer of the nineteenth century. His works, ranging from portraiture to panorama, worked within early African American mourning traditions and invited audiences to witness racial violence in America without dehumanising the Black body or eradicating Black experience. In tracing Ball's early career, exploring the spaces in which he worked, and analysing a selection of his photographs and panoramas, this article highlights how Ball celebrated Black artistic excellence, rallied against racial violence, and resisted dominant visual cultures.
Lynching has a long history in the United States. In the antebellum era, before the outbreak of the Civil War, the term was most associated with the extra-judicial punishment of those who had trespassed against societal norms. However, after the end of slavery and the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, the nature of lynching had taken a spectacularly violent turn. Where lynching in the antebellum era was an accepted form of social regulation in which punishment enforced and enacted by the community stood in for the extremely limited availability of law officers, lynchings in the late nineteenth century were most commonly deliberate acts of terrorism against the African American population. Violence, murder, and spectacle were used to dismantle the perceived gains of Black people after the abolition of slavery.
Thousands of White men, women, and children attended these brutal and ritualized killings. It was common for the time and location of a lynching to be published in newspapers or announced on the radio prior to the event. Railroads ran special excursion trains to lynching sites or added cars to accommodate wider audiences. Schools would even let children out for the day, to enable the whole community to attend. The lynching was usually followed by frenzied souvenir gathering. There are reports of burnt pieces of wooden stakes, iron nails, torn pieces of clothing, and body parts being auctioned off on-site to the delight of the spectating crowd. Photographs and postcards of victims were regularly circulated in vast numbers for profit in and around the local community.
The popularity of spectacle lynching and the visual practices that accompanied it were propelled and shaped by America’s late-nineteenth-century preoccupation with visually sensational experiences. Amusement parks, world’s fairs, urban theatre districts and circus extravaganzas came together with the extraordinary constructions of elevated railways, underground subway systems, department store complexes and skyscrapers to create new and visually stunning environments. One of America’s most popular tourist destinations at the turn of the nineteenth century, Coney Island in New York, offered visitors the opportunity, for a small fee, to watch blazing fires, catastrophic shipwrecks, biblical floods, and brutal battles recreated into entertainment extravaganzas. In this context, lynching’s frenzied performance of “justice” was a distinctively theatrical and visually enthralling phenomenon that was both product and architect of modern American visual culture.
Henry Smith’s lynching in Paris, Texas, in 1898 is one example of how spectacular visual culture influenced the actions of the lynch mob. The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel described how the town had organised a parade, in which a beaten Smith was seated upon a cardboard throne and handed a sceptre, in mockery of a King. For the alleged crime of murdering and raping three-year-old Myrtle Vance—an account which was refuted by Civil Rights journalist and activist Ida B. Wells’ Red Record after an investigation revealed no signs of sexual assault on the young girl’s body—Smith was tortured with hot irons and blades before being burned alive. Photographs of Henry Smith’s lynching were later synchronised with sound recordings of his agonised screams (recorded by an early form of graphophone) and projected onto a screen for the audience’s entertainment.
Mass consumption of lynching imagery only increased alongside the democratisation of photography. The invention of the portable Kodak camera in 1888 handed the power to create photographs to the masses. A National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) informant, writing from the site of Thomas Brooks’ lynching in 1915, reported that: ‘Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching… Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro’. The hundreds of Kodak photographs and hundreds more picture cards sold by vendors disseminated the violence that was inflicted upon African American victims of lynching across the nation.
However, contemporary photographers also sought to use the lynching photograph to expose the White supremacist violence that these images promoted and circulated. In what is known as a “frame narrative”, photographers incorporated the traditional lynching photograph into a series of images which showed lynching victims before and after their death. This frame narrative was a distinctly African American approach. Though not the only contemporary approach used by the Black press to report on lynchings—for example, hand-drawn political cartoons which could display the explicit violence of lynching without circulating photographs was also a distinctly Black tradition—early Black photographers worked to challenge dominant visual conventions that objectified and criminalised the Black body.
The most famous of these African American photographers was James Presley (J.P) Ball. Ball’s career began in his late teens when he met the African American daguerreotypist John B. Bailey. By 1845, Ball had opened his own one-room studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. Initially, he struggled to establish himself. The first studio Ball opened saw only two sitters in the first three months, one of whom was photographed on credit. But after four years of itinerant work and a short yet successful period back in Virginia, Ball returned to Cincinnati in 1849. This time, with years of experience, an established name, and the financial means to support the running of his own gallery behind him, his career thrived.
Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West was more than a studio. In keeping with the entertainment culture sweeping the nation, Ball’s gallery was a sensational experience. With a reception room measuring twenty by forty feet, fine furniture, gold-leaf wallpaper, a piano, and two towering mirrors, the opulence of the space led to its crowning as the most famous and most ornate studio in Cincinnati. The extravagant surroundings also hosted works by the best of Cincinnati’s Black artists and cultural innovators. Paintings by African American artist and Cincinnati resident Robert Duncanson adorned the walls, along with sculptures paying homage to the goddesses of Science, Religion, Music, Poetry, and Purity. An advertisement printed in an 1855 pamphlet demonstrated the extent to which Ball publicised his studio as stunningly experiential:
The very seat on which you sit and the carpet on which you tread seem to be a gem culled from the fragrant lap of Flora; all of these are reflected by two bright mirrors in the south end, present you a scene replete with elegance and beauty—to cap the climax, there is a noble piano by whose sweet notes you are regaled, while the skilful operator is painting your face with sunbeams on the sensitive yet tenacious mirror.
Ball’s success was ground-breaking. He soon opened two more galleries in the city with the help of his brother and brother-in-law. When one studio was destroyed during a tornado in 1860, both Black and White patrons and wealthy customers funded the rebuild. Ball’s list of sitter’s ultimately included illustrious titles such as Frederick Douglass, Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum, and the wife and daughter of Ulysses S. Grant.
The reason behind Ball’s relocation to Helena, Montana, in 1887 is not known for sure, though there is speculation that the rising Black population and reputably vibrant culture may have drawn him. Nevertheless, it was here that Ball photographed the lynching of an African American man called William Biggerstaff. Convicted for the alleged murder of African American prize fighter Dick Turner, Biggerstaff was hanged in front of a crowd of spectators in 1896. In all likelihood, Ball and Biggerstaff were acquaintances, perhaps good friends. Either way, Ball was certainly familiar with the case and was aware that Biggerstaff had claimed self-defence in the trial. In the days following Biggerstaff’s sentencing, Ball headed a clemency movement alongside over one hundred men and women belonging to Helena’s Black community. His efforts were to no avail. Unable to save Biggerstaff’s life, Ball did what he could to preserve it.
He developed a triptych of photographs, backed onto cards bearing the emblem of Ball’s Montana studio. Yet, rather than sensationalising his physical suffering, Ball narrativized Biggerstaff’s life and death in a way that created a sense of movement, of transition, and of vitality.
In displaying images of Biggerstaff when he was alive and after his death, Ball brought both life and loss into the narrative of Biggerstaff’s lynching. He reminded his audience that Biggerstaff was a man. A man who, like most others at this time, had sat for a portrait that would project a professional, refined image. A man who, as we can see from the final image (and the ring on his left hand) was married. A man who was mourned. A man who was taken away from his family. In showing this, Ball’s approach allowed for a fuller expression of the pain felt by the African American community in the wake of Biggerstaff’s death.
This was not the first time Ball had used a frame narrative approach to counter a dominant White narrative. Forty-one years earlier, Ball exhibited his abolitionist 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 Savannah Rivers, Niagara Falls &c, painted entirely by African American artists. Operated using a canvas that was rotated across two poles, panoramas were illusory spectacles designed to make audiences feel as though they were moving through time and space alongside a narrative trajectory. They preceded Coney Island-like extravaganzas in that they encouraged visitors to fully immerse themselves in a scene or narrative. As would be expected from a new mode of visual technology at this time, one that was inevitably shaped by the decades of discourse on the truth-telling capacities of the photographic medium, panoramas were met with a demand to promote scientific discourses and educate the public about exotic landscapes, bodies, and artifacts.
In many ways, due to the constraints of the form with which he was working, Ball’s Pictorial Tour complied with these demands. Landscapes played a central role. Though the panorama itself is lost, it can be inferred from the title alone that viewers of the panorama could expect to be transported across different continents, states, and countries. The fifty-six page pamphlet that accompanied the panorama also paid great attention to the details of the flora and fauna in each scene, thereby providing audiences with substantial scientific knowledge. More important than this adherence to panoramic conventions, though, is the narrative Ball created. He presented his tour of the United States through the journey undertaken by an enslaved African American man. Beginning with his life in an African village, described as an idyllic world of natural wonder and beauty, the story follows the man as he is captured, transported, and sold at an auction in St Louis, Missouri, and enslaved on a plantation. His eventual escape through the swamps of Louisiana is shown before he reaches Canada, where the monumental Niagara Falls thunderously celebrate his freedom.
Ball’s struggle to reconcile conventions that often evoked colonial and imperialist nostalgia through ethnographical and spatial forms with the violent reality of slavery is detectable, but so too is his desire to challenge and disrupt White narratives. In the same way that the enslaved man in Ball’s panorama was first shown in his home in Africa, with his family and village communities surrounding him, Biggerstaff’s first portrait depicts a man with a sense of place, purpose, and citizenship in modern America.
In his portrait, Biggerstaff is clean-shaven, with a trimmed moustache and neatly-cut hair. He wears a suit jacket and waistcoat, with a flower blooming in his lapel. Seated in a wooden chair, he gazes thoughtfully at something just to the left of the camera’s lens. His chin rests upon his right hand. The background, though faded, shows a circular trellis which forms a halo around Biggerstaff’s head. The cherub that bestows a wreath of flowers upon the top of the trellis could almost be reaching out to touch Biggerstaff, to whisper in his ear as he sits in thoughtful repose.
It is difficult to subsequently reconcile this image of Biggerstaff with the one that succeeds it. Now dead, the face that first greets and intrigues the viewer with its contemplative meditation is covered by a hood, unable to return the gaze of either camera or viewer. Though he wears the same jacket—presumably his best—the flower, a sign of life blossoming, has gone. A wedding ring is just visible on his left hand. A crowd of White men stand behind Biggerstaff’s body, whilst Reverend Victor Day and Sheriff Henry Jurgens stand either side of him. Every White face is staring intently at the camera, which returns their relentless gaze in a stand-off that teeters upon the confrontational. Considering that the Black photographer had headed the group that lobbied for Biggerstaff’s life, this may indeed have been a confrontational exchange. The White faces of the law are almost challenging Ball—and by extension, the viewer—to say or do something to oppose its actions.
The final image in the sequence is of Biggerstaff in his casket. Now more prominently displayed, his wedding ring draws the viewer’s gaze immediately. This draws attention not only to the loss of Biggerstaff himself but to the sorrows felt by a wife and family left behind. Biggerstaff’s body is displayed in a lined casket that is propped up to allow Ball to capture Biggerstaff’s torso in a style not too far removed from that of portraiture. Spectators can see that, after his execution, Biggerstaff’s body was attended to, cared for, and mourned. Central to this mode of presentation is an adherence to traditional African American mourning rituals that were widely practiced at the end of the nineteenth century. Open-casket funerals were traditional in African American communities. This way of communal mourning allowed people to express their grief by touching, kissing, and laying their hands upon his body. Lovingly embracing and establishing physical contact with the bodies of lynching victims was often a way for families and loved ones to reclaim the bodies of those who had been taken from them, a way to protest against and challenge the injustice of their deaths. In photographing the casket in this way, Ball made the mourning process available to a wider audience. Where Biggerstaff’s community in Helena could see, touch, and mourn his body at the funeral, the tactility of the photographs allowed viewers to participate in this ritual from both a geographical and temporal distance. Viewers, too, could lay their hands upon the body, hold it to their lips or to their hearts as they mourned Biggerstaff’s death.
Despite the high levels of violence perpetrated against African American communities, and despite working within a White-dominated industry and culture, J.P. Ball’s work repeatedly challenged White assumptions about Black inferiority and criminality. He celebrated Black excellence by promoting and exhibiting works by Black artists, musicians, and craftsmen in his sensational Cincinnati studio. He rallied against racial violence by leading the clemency campaign after Biggerstaff’s trial. When this ultimately failed, he commemorated Biggerstaff’s unjust death in a way that honoured African American mourning traditions and emphasised a life lost as opposed to a criminalised corpse. Like many Black artists and performers throughout American history, Ball used innovative visual technologies and conventions to overturn the dominant visual culture that so often dehumanised African Americans and eradicated Black lived experience in the United States.
Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004).
Edwin T. Arnold, What Virtue There is in Fire: Cultural Memory and the Lynching of Sam Hose (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).
Deborah Willis, J.P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Shelly Jarenski, ‘“Delighted and Instructed”: African American Challenges to Panoramic Aesthetics in J. P. Ball, Kara Walker, and Frederick Douglass’, American Quarterly, 65:1 (2013): 119-155.
Jaqueline Goldbsy, Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Shona is a third year PhD student in the History department at Lancaster University. Her research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, critically examines commemorative displays of historical trauma and suffering. Her thesis investigates violence, visual culture, and the commemoration of racial violence in the United States, and aims to expose how modern commemorative representations are inextricably linked to early visual technologies that relied upon the objectification and commodification of African American suffering.