May is National Photography Month. Over the course of this month, we will be highlighting special collections and University Archives materials that specifically relate to the history of photography. This week, we highlight a new photography acquisition in a post by our Chief Curator.

By Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator

The Special Collections Research Center is excited to announce the acquisition of a unique photo album that opens up several avenues for further research. The photo album contains 20 cabinet card albumen photographs of fashionably dressed well-off people from the late 19th century, the majority or possibly all of the images featuring African Americans.

A selection of portraits from a 19th century photo album
A selection of portraits from the photo album. Detroit Photograph Album.

The photographs do not have any names written identifying the subjects, but they do all have identified photographers. More than half of the portraits have Detroit photographer’s marks, including “Sr. Clear”, “Willard”, “Eisenhardt”, and “Hughes”. Others include “J.B. Dettmer” (Cincinnati), “Wilson” (Chicago), and “Kruse” (New Bedford, Mass.) While the date and names are unknown, this album opens up many avenues for our students and faculty to research and find out more about the photographers, the fashions, and the album itself, which may reveal the date and the story of the community represented in this album.

For classroom use, this album greatly expands SCRC’s documentation of African Americans in photographs in the 19th century. While an album with identified subjects would have opened up more immediate avenues for research, portraits of African American subjects in the 19th century who likely chose to be photographed and the had agency in their portrayal are more rare. Many of our photography collections in SCRC are from journalists and photographers who traveled around the world with an ethnographic eye, photographing people as “types” or circus advertising photographs from performers, as those were produced in greater numbers and therefore survive in larger numbers. In the classroom these portrait photographs can add complexity to the discussion, and inspire students to imagine the lives of prominent African American families in Detroit in the 1880s-1890s.

19th century photo album with celluloid cover.
The unique celluloid cover and decorative binding of the photo album. Detroit Photograph Album.

Another interesting feature of this acquisition is the unique materiality of the album itself. The decorative celluloid cover is a fascinating early example of a form of plastic being used as a “book” cover. SCRC’s Plastics Artifacts Collection has a few examples of religious books like prayer books and Bibles, as well as examples of autograph books dated to the early 1890s with celluloid covers, but none so large and with such an elaborate color image.

Early plastic and celluloid covers.
Three examples of celluloid bindings from 1895, 1910 and 1892. Plastics Artifacts Collection.

Finally, the album opens up other avenues of historical exploration, including using digital crowd-sourcing to identify some of the subjects of the portraits. Take a close look at the faces featured in these photographs and let us know if think you recognize a family member or someone from your research. When we return to on-site access in the Special Collections Research Center, the Detroit Photograph Album can be called up in the SCRC Reading Room.

Portrait of 19th century woman.
A portrait of a woman in a very fine dress. Detroit Photograph Album.
Photographs from Detroit album.
Two page spread of portraits as they appear in the album. Detroit Photograph Album.
Photographs from Detroit album.
Two page spread of portraits as they appear in the album. Detroit Photograph Album.

The Detroit Photograph Album (Detroit Photograph Album, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections and the 1895 prayer book, 1910 prayer book, and 1892 autograph album with celluloid covers are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s Plastics Artifacts Collection (Plastics Artifacts Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).