The journey of James Presley Ball reflects the rich complexity of 19th-century America. As a member of a small but determined African American middle class, Ball was an astute businessman, a savvy self-promoter and a respected member of a thriving community of artists. But Ball’s journey is not just the story of an individual. It is also the story of a creative and successful network of family, co-workers, friends, allies and rivals. As a photographer, Ball mastered constantly evolving technologies. From the glorious but expensive and cumbersome daguerreotype in the 1840s to the flexible, inexpensive and easily reproducible photographic print of 1900, he embraced and exploited the business and artistic potential of each new development. As a businessman, Ball came of age in Cincinnati. When he arrived in 1845, the Queen City of the West was the fastest growing city in America. Flooded by immigrants, connected to rapidly growing markets by steamboat and railroad, Cincinnati presented an array of business opportunities. Even an African American photographer could succeed if he could learn to attract white clients who wanted to sit for their portraits. He must understand how to navigate the brittle racial tensions of a city perched on the border of slavery and economically tied to the booming Cotton Frontier. As an abolitionist, Ball was part of a national network of African American activists who fought against slavery, lobbied for civil rights and sought recognition for cultural achievements of African Americans. During the Civil War, the war that finally ended slavery, Ball’s photographic studios helped keep hundreds of soldiers and their families visually connected to each other.
Portait of Woman and Child (c. 1851 - c. 1871) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.
Success and Struggles in Cincinnati
In 1851, Ball again opened a gallery in Cincinnati, later moving it to another downtown location in 1853 and expanding it to include nine employees. “Ball’s Great Daguerrian Gallery of the West” quickly became one of the most celebrated galleries in the United States, and was featured in a wood engraving in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, April 1, 1854.
Portrait of 4 Men (c.1851 - c. 1859) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
Ball’s work was featured in exhibitions of photography at Cincinnati’s grand industrial expositions held in 1852, 1854, 1855 and 1857 at the Ohio Mechanics Institute. At the 1857 exposition, Ball and another photographer won a bronze medal for photography.
Portrait of Tom Ball (c. 1851 - c. 1871) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.
Portrait of Alexander Thomas (c.1851 - c. 1859) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.”
Portrait of the Thomas Family (c.1851 - c. 1859) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.
Portrait of Rufus C. Phillips (c. 1862) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
Ball dissolved his partnership with Alexander Thomas in March 1860. Ball’s younger brother, Thomas C. Ball, continued as a studio photographer in partnership with Alexander Thomas until Thomas’s death in 1875. In 1871, J.P. Ball left Cincinnati.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass (1867-01) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.
Ball Moves South and West
J.P. Ball moved to Greenville, Mississippi and later to Vidalia, Louisiana. In 1885, he was contracted to take the school photographs for the St. Louis (Missouri) Common Schools. Two years later, while living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was chosen as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in that city. That same year, Ball left Minneapolis for Helena, Montana Territory, where he ran a successful studio with his son, daughter and daughter-in-law and entered politics. In December 1887, he was nominated as a delegate to a civil rights convention and later ran for several offices on the Republican ticket. He later became president of Montana’s Afro-American Club and co-founded the St. James AME Church. Ball photographed many business leaders and pioneers from Montana. He also documented the arrival of recent immigrants, the construction of the state capitol in Helena and several public executions.
Portrait of Ted Jones (c. 1862) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
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.
Portrait of Jennie B. and Edward Bishop (c. 1860 - c. 1869) by James Presley BallCincinnati Museum Center
Ball left Seattle for Honolulu, presumably in the hopes that the change in climate could help relieve his crippling rheumatism. He opened a studio in his home in Honolulu, which was probably run by his daughter, Estella. J.P. Ball died on May 4, 1904, at the age of 79, in Honolulu.
James DaMico - Curator of Photographs and Prints
Scott Gampfer - Director of the Cincinnati History Library and Archives