Posted on 07/02/2014

Photo taken on May  1, 1917

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Cornelius Battey and wife
African American couple
Tuskegee Institution
Famed photographer

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Photo replaced on July  3, 2014
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The Batteys

The Batteys
The photographer (C.M. Battey) poses for a formal portrait along with his wife, Elizabeth Smith Battey

Considered the first African-American photographer to raise photography from a craft to a fine art, C. M. Battey created idealized photographs of both famous and ordinary black people that are still treasured today.

He was born Cornelius Marion Battey in 1873, in Augusta, Georgia, but his family moved north when he was still a child. His first professional job was working in an architect's office in Indianapolis, Indiana. Interested in photography, which was still a new medium, Battey got a job in a Cleveland, Ohio, photography studio. He later moved to New York City, where for six years he was superintendent of the Bradley Photographic Studio on Fifth Avenue. He went to work at the city's most famous photographic company, Underwood and Underwood, where he was put in charge of the retouching department.

Battey finally got the opportunity to work on his own. With a partner he opened the Battey and Warren Studio in New York. Battey's pictures were characterized by their use of soft focus and his painstaking retouching of prints and negatives with pencil or pen. The retouching enhanced the portrait and gave it a clean and soft look. The photographers working in this style were known as pictorialists, and Battey was one of the best pictorialists in New York City.

His work led him into a valuable friendship with black author and educator W. E. B. DuBois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DuBois was also editor of the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis. Soon Battey's portraits of well-known black leaders were appearing regularly on the covers of The Crisis.

In 1916, Battey was invited to take over the photography department of the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The first black institute of higher learning in the nation, Tuskegee was founded by famed educator and social thinker Booker T. Washington in 1881. Washington saw Tuskegee as a place where young black people could learn a trade or profession that would make them economically independent. He established a photography department for this purpose. "A colored man would have almost as good an opportunity to succeed as a white man … [in the field of photography]," he wrote in a letter to photographic inventor George Eastman.

Washington died the year before Battey arrived at Tuskegee, and Battey photographed the construction and dedication of a monument erected to the school's founder. At Tuskegee, Battey not only taught photography but also chronicled in pictures the life of the campus. His hundreds of photographs of Tuskegee included candid shots of students in class, on the playing fields, and in job training classes. His photographs serve today as an invaluable record of black university life in the early 20th century.

Battey's growing fame as a photographer led him to take portraits of such national figures as President Calvin Coolidge and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft. While at Tuskegee, he published Our Heroes of Destiny, a series of portraits of outstanding African-Americans, including abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. These portraits were later mass-produced in post-card format and sold to thousands of black people across the nation.

Battey died at Tuskegee in 1927 at age 54. The black journal Opportunity summed up his artistic achievement in an editorial that described his life "as one increasing struggle to liberate, through a rigid medium, the fluid graces of an artist's soul. For paintbrush and palette, he used a lens and shutter."

Bio: 'Black Artists in Photography (1840-1940),' by George Sullivan
Photo: Crisis Magazine (May 1917)

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