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James Presley Ball Black Photographer 1800's

Updated on May 28, 2010
Elizabeth Hunt
Elizabeth Hunt
Fannie Nast Gamble (Of the Proctor and Gamble family)
Fannie Nast Gamble (Of the Proctor and Gamble family)
Interior of Ball Studios.
Interior of Ball Studios.
Martha Brady.
Martha Brady.
Unidentified lady by Ball from my collection.
Unidentified lady by Ball from my collection.
Back of above photo.
Back of above photo.
Mattie Allen.
Mattie Allen.

James Presley Ball

James Presley Ball's 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.

African American Daguerreotypist, Entrepreneur, and Activist

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

He photographed Queen Victoria and author Charles Dickens

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. My thanks to the Cincinnati Historical Society for the information on this talented pioneer black photographer James Presley Ball.


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    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from 41042

      Sallie, no reason to be ashamed as you'll notice in the other comments a lot of black folks are unaware too. The fact he was a photographer peaked my interest really. I try to imagine what it was like for him back then. Glad you liked it!

    • Sallie Mullinger profile image

      Sallie Mullinger 

      4 years ago from Ohio

      Wow Tom! I must say that like many white people in our country, I am basically ignorant when it comes to the achievements of blacks in our history.

      Its an arrogance perhaps..much the same way many Americans are about the rest of the world. But not borne of prejudice as much as just not bothering because, as you said, it wasnt something taught in our history books.

      I am somewhat ashamed by this admission and thats about as honest a comment as you might ever get.

      Thank you for opening my eyes.

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from 41042

      Hi serious, you're more than welcome and thank you for your interest Black folks did many great things but white folks choose to ignore their achievements in history books so you just have to dig a bit deeper and I love doing it :-) Good luck with your class and your work, we need more like you!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thank you for this information. I am a photojournalist and am taking a photography history class. You'd think that there were no Black people at all involved in photography! I knew better. And what I'd really like to find out is if there were any Black people who invented some of the ear lie photographic processes of taking pictures as well.

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from 41042

      Always happy to celebrate a good photographer. I remember how it was when I was growing up in the 50's in Cincinnati and can't imagine what a black man in the 1800's must have had to put up with. Racism is shameful...thanks for checking out this hub! Peace!!

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 

      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Sounds like a very bright and wonderful man and a person who thought outside the box for the times. Good for him! I just love the photo's-they emanate such charm and history. Thanks for introducing me to James. Hit many buttons.

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 41042

      Thanks Victor, this guy is very special considering what the racial thing was like in this city back then. Glad you enjoyed his photos!

    • Alladream74 profile image

      Victor Mavedzenge 

      7 years ago from Oakland, California

      Greta hub.I will have to look him up.These photographs have a peculiar quality I quite can't put my finger on.Impressive find!

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 41042

      Hi Freta, good point. I don't think there are many photos of Ball but you've sparked me, I'll see what I can find. Thanks for reading and commenting, I'm always happy when you do. Peace!!

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      7 years ago from Southern California

      Tom this is so interesting. With all of this photographing, didn't he have any of himself? I just love you documentation of these people, I must come back often. Voted up/awesome.

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 41042

      Hi Tony, this is the kind of stuff I love. He was a man for his time, quite important. Thanks for your time, Peace!! Tom

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks so much for this fascinating snippet of photographic history. As a keen though very amateur photographer I love reading about and seeing the works of the real guys! He must have had some fire in his gut to persevere the way he did. Quite admirqable.

      Thanks again.

      Love and peace


    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 41042

      Hey N.E., having gone to school for photography and living in Cincinnati it would have been hard for me not to know about him. The main thing is now you know him too, Thanks for stopping by, I always enjoy your comments! Peace!

    • N.E. Wright profile image

      N.E. Wright 

      7 years ago from Bronx, NY

      Hey Tom,

      This article is great, and extremely informative.

      I am sad to say I have never heard of this interesting man before. I bet you my father did though. LOL.

      Thanks for sharing this much needed story of America.

      Take Care,


    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from 41042

      Thanks you brother, this guy was very impressive.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      8 years ago

      God bless the abolitionist, J.P. Ball! Great job Tom! Thank you Brother Man!

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from 41042

      Thanks Mick and Ginn, it's still interesting to me also. Peace!!

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 

      8 years ago

      As a lover of all forms of art I found this very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    • MickS profile image


      8 years ago from March, Cambridgeshire, England

      excellent, well written and interesting hub and still no 'interesting' button.

      the pics are well preserved.

    • justom profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from 41042

      Thanks Darlene, you've been doing the important stuff, no reason to be sorry. My best to your daughter. Take care!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Wonderful hub my friend, so sorry I have not been commenting in a timely manner, I have been spending hours with my darling daughter with breast cancer. I love your hub, very informative a excellently written...thumbs up


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