Posted on 06/16/2009

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James Presley Ball
J.P. Ball & Sons

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James Presley Ball

James Presley Ball
James Presley Ball's (1825 - 1904), 79 years of life constituted an amazing personal journey that carried him across the United States from Virginia to Hawaii, from the time that the United States was a slave society through the turbulent years of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of segregation.

As a photographer, Ball was a careful observer and recorder of these transformations. And as an entrepreneur and abolitionist , he was an active participant helping to transform American society.

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 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 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 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 well known galleries in the United States, and was featured in a wood engraving in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, April 1, 1854.

Ball's work was featured in exhibitions of photography at 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

In 1855, Ball, along with a team of African American artists, embarked on one of his most significant works - a large 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. 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 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. 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.

After leaving Cincinnati, James Presley 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.

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 developing a practice as a lawyer.

J.P. Ball remained active in civic affairs and founded and organized Shriners' lodges in Seattle and Portland. He left Seattle for Honolulu, presumably for the change in climate to 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.

J. P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,
Deborah Willis, ed.

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