Black photographer J.P. Ball was pioneer in Cincinnati, exposed ills of slavery – The Cincinnati Enquirer

J.P. Ball was a renowned photographer in the early days of the profession. His studio and gallery in Cincinnati were hailed as the finest in the west during the pre-Civil War era. He also used his stature to help expose the atrocities of slavery.
And he was Black.
That fact is significant, yet rarely did contemporary accounts mention his race.
Ball worked with Robert S. Duncanson, the acclaimed African American painter who created the landscape murals on the walls of Nicholas Longworth’s home, which is now the Taft Museum of Art. Both artists received a similar level of respect in the 1850s and their race did not appear to be much of an issue.
That is fairly remarkable in Cincinnati for that time.
Race relations in the city during the antebellum period led to several race riots in the 1840s. Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad actively worked to eliminate slavery. Across the river was a slave state and the Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave catchers to hunt for runaways in free territories.
That is the city where Ball thrived as a photographic portrait artist.
James Presley Ball was born free in Virginia in 1825. He studied the process of daguerreotype from Boston photographer John B. Bailey, who, like Ball, was a “free man of color.”
Daguerreotype was the first commercially successful form of photography. Images were captured on silvered copper plates that were polished to a mirrored finish and showed incredible detail. The process was difficult and the plates were heavy and fragile, so they were protected under glass inside velvet-lined cases.
A local example of a daguerreotype is the “Cincinnati Panorama of 1848” by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter that is on display at the Cincinnati Room at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
The daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, so the process was still new in 1845 when Ball arrived in Cincinnati and opened a short-lived one-room studio. He became an itinerant photographer, then returned to the Queen City in 1849.
Ball opened his own gallery on Fifth Street in 1851, then moved to occupy several floors at a site on Fourth Street near Race that was featured in the magazine “Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion” in 1854, along with an illustration.
The article described “Ball’s great Daguerrian Gallery of the West” with 187 of his finest pictures, paintings by Duncanson, a piano and mounted figures of goddesses draped in robes. He employed nine specialists at his studio, including Duncanson, who hand-colored the images.
“His fame has spread, not only over his own but through nearly every State of the Union; and there is scarcely a distinguished stranger that comes to Cincinnati but, if his time permits, seeks the pleasure of Mr. Ball’s artistic acquaintance,” the magazine said.
He photographed abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Levi Coffin, opera singer Jenny Lind and Civil War general William Haines Lytle, as well as civic leaders, babies and families, Black and white. In 1856 he traveled to Europe and captured the likenesses of Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.
“Possessed of the best materials and the finest instruments, Mr. Ball takes them with an accuracy and a softness of expression unsurpassed by any establishment in the Union,” the article said.
During this time, Ball lived at the Dumas House, an African American hotel owned by African Americans. It was located on McAllister Street near Broadway between Fourth and Fifth streets, now an alley next to Western & Southern Financial Corp.
According to Wendell P. Dabney’s “Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens,” the Dumas House was “the center of class and culture in colored society” and a station on the Underground Railroad.
In 1855, Ball completed his most ambitious project, collaborating with a team of African American artists to create a large moving panorama that unrolled before an audience to tell a story.
Rather than show a travelogue of far-off lands, Ball’s panorama depicted the history of slavery in America.
Ball’s mammoth panorama was displayed at the Ohio Mechanics Institute at Sixth and Vine streets (where the Terrace Plaza Hotel is today) from March 12-21, 1855.
The 600-yard canvas was divided into four parts that “illustrated American life,” according to an advertisement, beginning with a voyage from Africa to America and views of Charleston, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and on up to Niagara Falls.
The Enquirer described each scene for readers, which included the capture of native Africans, slavers tossing people overboard to destroy evidence of their crime, scenes of enslaved Blacks working on plantations, runaway slaves attacked by bloodhounds and the lynching of Joseph Spencer in Cairo, Illinois, in 1854.
“Taken altogether, the Panorama is decidedly the best ever exhibited, not only in this city, but in this country; and as a faithful representation of the several scenes in the United States which it depicts, it cannot be excelled,” The Enquirer raved.
Ball elucidated America’s hypocrisy in the accompanying pamphlet: “Thus slavery, which at the beginning of our national existence was barely tolerated for the few years that it was supposed would be necessary to terminate its miserable existence now reigns supreme, and boldly demands recognition and protection wherever the flag of the Republic floats.”
The panorama was also shown in Boston, but its fate is unknown. It was possibly lost when a tornado struck Cincinnati on May 21, 1860, damaging Ball’s studio.
Ball left Cincinnati in 1871 and moved about across the country – Mississippi, Louisiana, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Montana Territory, Seattle, then finally Honolulu, where he died in 1904 at age 79.
Ball’s photographs are found in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Additional sources: “J.P. Ball, African American Photographer,” Cincinnati Museum Center; Enquirer archives

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