Connecticut Historical Society

Hartford, CT



Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist


The Connecticut Historical Society showcases one of America' s first black photographers with the exhibition A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist, on view through May 2, 2000.

The exhibition tells the remarkable story of Augustus Washington's life (1820/21- 1875) as a free black in the antebellum North; as a portrait photographer and owner of one of the most successful studios in Hartford, Connecticut; and as a planter, politician, and newspaper editor in the West African nation of Liberia after his emigration there in 1853. (left: Eliphalet A. Bulkeley, c. 1850, Courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society)

A Durable Memento was curated by Ann M. Shumard, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition also draws on the pioneering research of David White, author of "Augustus Washington, Black Daguerreotypist of Hartford" (first published in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin of January 1974), and the research of Dr. Deborah D. Willis-Thomas for her 1985 book "Black Photographers: 1840-1940."

The exhibition includes 33 images, most on public view for the first time. Only 49 daguerreotypes by or attributed to Washington have been located, of which seven are in the collection of The Connecticut Historical Society. Lenders to A Durable Memento are the Amistad Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Watkinson Library at Trinity College, the National Portrait Gallery, the Library of Congress, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, private collections, and The Connecticut Historical Society. (left: Lydia Morgan Bulkeley, c. 1850, Courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society)

An "old-fashioned" daguerrean studio will be the highlight for visiting families and children. On weekends, you can try on period clothing - cravats, lace gloves, vests, and more - and pose for a photographer who will instantly take your picture. Special workshops will allow you to make frames and pin hole camera, and learn about a camera obscura and solar prints.

The exhibition has been organized by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Support for the exhibition's tenure at The Connecticut Historical Society comes from the Connecticut Humanities Council and MassMutual Foundation for Hartford, Inc.


The Life and Work of Augustus Washington

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, in either 1820 or 1821, Washington was the son of an African American father and former slave, and an Asian mother. While little is known of his childhood, Washington did receive a solid, primary education and in his early teens, was profoundly influenced by his reading of anti-slavery publications. Eager to discover how he "might best contribute to elevate the social and political position of the oppressed and unfortunate people with whom I am identified," Washington sought his answer in education. After briefly operating a school for black students, he enrolled in the Oneida Institute in Whitestown, New York, with financial assistance from several New York abolitionists. Unable to pay for more than two years of schooling, Washington taught in a public school in Brooklyn, New York, before resuming his studies - first at Kimball Union Academy at Meriden, New Hampshire, and then at Dartmouth College in 1843. (left: Unidentified Woman (McGill family member), c, 1854, Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Plagued by a persistent lack of funds, Augustus Washington suspended his studies after his freshman year and turned to photography as a means of income. While his decision to practice daguerreotypy drew criticism from several quarters, including his parents and the president of Dartmouth College, Washington was undeterred. His daguerrean enterprise proved successful as townspeople and faculty members alike sat for his camera.

In the autumn of 1844, Augustus Washington left Dartmouth College and traveled to Hartford, Connecticut to take charge of one of that city's two schools for black students. At the North African School on 12 Talcott Street, Washington was found to be "a competent good teacher... well educated." Despite a meager salary, he succeeded in paying off his college debts and looked forward to one day resuming his own studies. But by the close of 1846, Washington had returned not to Dartmouth but to the practice of daguerreotypy. (left: Urias Africanus McGill, c. 1854, Courtesy of Library of Congress)

On December 24, 1846, Washington advertised the services of his new daguerrean enterprise in the pages of Connecticut's antislavery newspaper, the Charter Oak. Several months later, Hartford's city directories carried the first listings identifying Washington as a daguerreotypist and documented the relocation of his studio from 9 Waverly Building to the Kellogg Building at 136 Main Street.

Approximately 25 daguerreotype studios operated in Hartford between 1840 and 1855. Competition was keen, and most of these studios were in business only a few months. In contrast, Augustus Washington's "Washington Daguerrean Gallery" operated successfully for more than six years. His "Gallery" was prominently located in the Kellogg Building, "just a few doors north of Centre Church" and a few steps away from the Old State House. The Kelloggs were Hartford's most successful lithographic firm (rivals to Currier & Ives), and the studio that Washington occupied had already been used by other daguerreotypists, including J.D. Willard and Henry Bryant, O.D. Grosvernor, S.M. Ensign, and Lorenzo Fuller.

From the beginning, Washington's marketing strategy was clear: he would offer reasonably priced daguerreotypes - from 50 cents to $10 - and an extensive selection of cases, frames, bracelets, lockets, and rings "all of which he can sell cheaper than any other establishment." Washington's sitters included many members of Hartford's elite, such as Eliphalet A. Bulkeley, the founder of the Aetna Insurance Company, and the poet and author Lydia Sigourney. By advertising in antislavery newspapers such as Ram 's Horn, Washington hoped to attract the patronage of those sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

Testimony to the popularity of Washington's gallery and the scope of his clientele can be found in the words of a contemporary, who observed, "Augustus Washington, an artist of fine taste and perception is numbered among the most successful Daguerreotypists in Hartford, Connecticut. His establishment is said to be visited daily by large numbers of the citizens of all classes." Unlike many daguerreotypists, whose work is largely anonymous, Washington assured his lasting reputation by stamping the mounts and cases of his portraits with his name and Hartford address.

Despite his own apparent success, Washington remained acutely aware of the formidable obstacles that kept so many of his African American contemporaries from improving their lives and their economic circumstances. While the abolition of slavery remained an imperative, Washington's own experience as a free person of color persuaded him that emancipation alone would not remove the long-standing barriers to opportunity that American society imposed upon its black citizens.

Read more about the Connecticut Historical Society in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

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