The Nelson-Atkins Museum has one of the world’s greatest collections of early photography, but the art museum’s latest acquisition is causing a stir in academia and the art world. In November, the museum acquired the only known photo of slaves working. The image, a primitive form of photography known as a daguerreotype, captured a scene on an Antebellum plantation in Green County, Georgia, circa 1850.
The singular image emerged at an estate sale, says Jane L. Aspinwall, curator of photography at the Nelson. “This is the only known image of slaves working on a plantation anywhere,” she says. “There’s no other one like it out there.”
The daguerreotype was auctioned on Nov. 15, and bidding “went a little higher than we were hoping it would go,” Aspinwall says. Ultimately the Hall Family Foundation acquired the image for $324,500 and gifted it to the Nelson.
“This has got it all,” Aspinwall says of the photo. “A lot of people not super familiar with early photography think of daguerreotypes as those kind of stiff portraits of people sitting in studios. This one clearly is not that. Just taking one of these images outside is a challenge and not something that every maker could do. And just the way that whole thing is composed: You’ve got the overseer or owner way on the left-hand side, and then you’ve got this row of workers with cotton baskets balanced on their heads. Then there’s even this really lovely vignette of this little African American boy in the lower left of the daguerreotype, his back turned to the camera. He’s kind of bent over and we’re not sure exactly what he’s doing.”
The image raises more questions than it answers, Aspinwall says. The home in the photo is modest compared to the coastal plantations typically associated with slavery. Researchers believe that the image is of a home owned by Samuel Gentry in Green County because he was the only Gentry who owned at least ten slaves. The image was discovered in the personal effects of a relative who died. It was sold at an estate sale before the significance was discovered.
“We’re in the very early stages of kind of looking at it,” Aspinwall says. “We didn’t even know this existed before October.”
The Nelson is working on a plan to show the image in an exhibit this year, and it could end up on tour, Aspinwall says.
“We know that this piece is really important to a lot of different communities,” she says. “We feel really fortunate that this image is becoming part of our collection, but we also know that it’s part of this larger collective history.”