Ten enslaved African-American people stand in front of a two-story, white clapboard building, some with baskets of cotton on top of their heads. A boy bows his head in the lower-left corner, his back to the camera. It’s a quarter-plate daguerreotype, a little larger than a deck of cards but brimming with details visible only when magnified: the individual leaves of the plants encircling a well, the woven wicker of the baskets. The antebellum photograph, believed to date back to the 1850s, is the oldest-known image of enslaved people with cotton, the commodity that they were forced to harvest.
Recently, at Cowan’s American History auction, the Hall Family Foundation purchased the photograph for $324,500, on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “I had never seen an image like this before,” says Jane Aspinwall, the curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder, according to critic Stephen Best in “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” published in a 2011 issue of the journal Representations. “However exhaustive one’s catalog of the visual archive of slavery, it will always be lacking in works by slaves themselves,” he writes.