The Smithsonian American Art Museum has acquired a wide-ranging collection of historic African American photographs that represent African Americans from the medium’s early years to the near present—roughly the 1840s to the 1970s—from Dr. Robert Drapkin. The collection includes 404 objects, including rare daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, as well as mixed paper prints.
The Dr. Robert L. Drapkin Collection looks broadly at how photography was adapted by Black makers and consumers to self-represent, and how it was used by others to recast racial tropes using the new medium to represent and to misrepresent African American history and culture.
“The Smithsonian American Art Museum is now uniquely positioned to advance a more nuanced and complex story about the role of photography in the United States with the addition of Robert Drapkin’s collection to the museum’s extraordinary holdings in this area established by the recent acquisition of works from Larry West’s collection,” Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. “This new collection will delight both the public who visit the museum and researchers and scholars who will delve into these unprecedented and previously privately held resources. Adding the Drapkin Collection to the national collection strengthens SAAM’s long-standing commitment to engaging in essential conversations about inclusion and diversity.”
The Drapkin Collection of historic African American photographs amplifies, without duplicating, objects related to early American photography in the L.J. West Collection acquired by the museum in 2021. That purchase, which included works by early African American daguerreotypists James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington, transformed the museum’s photography holdings. The museum holds the largest collection of daguerreotypes by these three early African American photographers. The Drapkin Collection adds three works by Ball to the museum’s unparalleled holdings.
“The museum’s purchase of Dr. Drapkin’s superb collection deepens the stories we can tell about Black life in the United States, especially its early history, when photography was used to perpetuate white supremacy as well as to counter it,” John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. “Recent scholarship situates the trade in photographic portraiture at the center of the great divide over slavery in the mid-19th century. The Drapkin Collection tracks those uses from past to present as the technologies of photography advanced.”
The Drapkin Collection ranges from portraits of enslaved persons made by their enslavers to images serving abolitionism, from stereo cards and panoramic pictures of the Southern cotton culture to Farm Security Administration photographers documenting Black life during the Great Depression and from news reports of Ku Klux Klan rallies in Northern cities to portraits from Black-owned studios capturing their vibrant communities and civic leaders.
Early images of note in the Drapkin Collection of historic African American photographs are a cabinet card portrait of Frederick Douglass by Conley of Boston and a salt print portrait of John Brown by Black and Batchelder, both autographed. Unique to the Drapkin Collection are daguerreotype portraits of Abigail Goodwin and Grace B. Douglass, Quaker abolitions who were active in the Underground Railroad.
Drapkin is a board-certified physician and author. He began collecting photographs in 1975. His collection encompasses American images of historical importance from the 19th and early 20th centuries. He offered his collection to the museum in recognition of its long-standing dedication to collecting and caring for works by Black artists.
“Photography is the history of everything from the 1840s to the present,” Drapkin said. “These images tell us how we lived and how we have changed. They have important messages that continue to evolve and inform us about ourselves. The Smithsonian is the best possible place to keep these valuable objects.”
This fall, the museum will debut a focused installation of works by Ball from the Drapkin and West collections alongside paintings from the museum’s permanent collection by Ball’s contemporary, Robert S. Duncanson. The dedicated gallery will feature artists whose works are a strength of the museum’s collection. Both artists were based in Ohio, and Duncanson worked in Ball’s studio coloring photographic plates. They were among the first African American artists to be recognized internationally during their lifetimes.
“It is exciting to imagine that research might reveal that one or more of the daguerreotypes by Ball that are now in the museum’s collection were in fact colored by Duncanson,” Jacob said.
The museum currently is engaged in a multi-year, comprehensive reinstallation of its permanent collection galleries titled “American Voices and Visions.” This project will be complete in 2026, in time for the 250th anniversary of the United States. The new interpretive strategy sets forth a vision of art in the United States that foregrounds new voices and presents a more inclusive narrative of American art, including the often-overlooked contributions of Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous and women artists.
The display of works by Ball and Duncanson previews an expanded presence for photography throughout the museum’s collection galleries as part of the “American Voices and Visions” project.
Art by African Americans at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world. Beginning in the mid-1960s the museum acquired major works, including Sargent Johnson’s “Mask” and James Hampton’s visionary installation, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” and works by Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson and Alma Thomas.
In 1980, the museum acquired works by 19th-century artists Joshua Johnson, the earliest documented professional African American painter; Edward Mitchell Bannister; Robert S. Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner; and neoclassical sculptures by Edmonia Lewis, the first professional sculptor of color.
Six years later, the museum acquired more than 400 works by folk and self-taught artists from the holdings of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., and in 2015, the museum acquired nearly 100 works by self-taught artists from the Margaret Z. Robson collection. A significant number of artworks in these collections are by African Americans, including William Edmondson, Bessie Harvey, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Elijah Pierce, Nellie Mae Rowe, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Bill Traylor and Inez Nathaniel-Walker.
In recent years, the museum has brought into its collection works by modern and contemporary artists, including Bisa Butler, Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sonya Clark, Theaster Gates, Arthur Jafa, Barbara Jean Jones-Hogu, Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, Cauleen Smith, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker and Fred Wilson, among others.
Important holdings in photography include works by Ball, Dawoud Bey, Roy DeCarava, Roland Freeman, Tony Gleaton, Robert McNeill, Marilyn Nance, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems and James Van Der Zee.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today.
The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, and is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday Admission is free.
Timed-entry passes are required to visit both locations.