An American Journey
J.P. Ball was born free in Virginia in 1825 to William and Susan Ball. His parents were listed as free persons of color at the time of their marriage in 1814 in Frederick County, Virginia. As a young man, Ball learned the process of daguerreotypy from the black Boston photographer, John B. Bailey, in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia). After an unsuccessful attempt to open a one-room daguerreotype studio in Cincinnati in the fall of 1845, Ball became an itinerant photographer and traveled to Pittsburgh, Richmond and throughout Ohio, finally resettling in Cincinnati in 1849.
In 1855, Ball, along with a team of African American artists, embarked on one of his most significant and ambitious works—a moving panorama titled "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 Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls & C." This tremendous work consisted of 2,400 square yards of canvas containing painted scenes. Its illustrated story could be told by slowly unwinding the gigantic canvas scroll before an audience. Ball wrote an accompanying pamphlet detailing “the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through middle passage to bondage.” The panorama, first exhibited in Cincinnati at the Ohio Mechanic’s Institute, was also shown in Boston.
In the 1850s, Ball’s business prospered and he soon opened another gallery. He hired his future brother-in-law, Alexander Thomas, around 1851-52. Thomas became a full partner in the business in November of 1857. Ball & Thomas soon became known as “the finest photographic gallery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”
In 1856, Ball traveled to Europe. Cincinnati newspaper accounts of Ball’s European trip report that he photographed Queen Victoria and author Charles Dickens. Ball’s reputation drew many renowned names to his studios in Cincinnati, including Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant’s mother and sister, Jenny Lind, well-known abolitionists and many Union Army officers and soldiers.
Ball experienced financial difficulties between 1865 and 1871. He lost a substantial amount of money as a result of “unfortunate speculations” and his assets were liquidated at a constable’s sale in 1868, though he continued with limited funds under the supervision of the Bankruptcy Court. In 1870 Ball gave his son an interest in the business and the firm’s name was changed to Ball & Son. R.G. Dunn’s classification of the firm as a poor credit risk may have been a motivating factor in Ball’s decision to leave the city and seek opportunities elsewhere.
In the second half of 1900, Ball followed his son, J.P. Ball Jr., to Seattle in the Western Territory of Washington. J.P. Jr. opened the Globe Studio in 1892 and Ball & Sons studio in 1897 while he was establishing a practice as a lawyer. J.P. Ball remained active in civic affairs and founded and organized Shriners’ lodges in Seattle and Portland.
James DaMico - Curator of Photographs and Prints
Scott Gampfer - Director of the Cincinnati History Library and Archives