Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Art of J.P. Ball

One of the speakers at the Daguerreian Society symposium, Theresa Leininger-Miller, presented a paper on James Presley Ball (1825-1904), a noted Cincinnati photographer of African American descent. At the end of the program, she made a plea for images by Ball. I took the opportunity to send her the carte de visite pictured here, along with this comment:

Ball's work is, in many respects, similar to many photographers of the time — with two exceptions: He clearly understood light, and used it to great advantage to create subtle contrast. Also, his portraits suggest an eye for composition. In the carte de visite of the unidentified infantryman, for example, the musket resting against the column creates a diagonal element that compliments the ever-so-slightly angled railing, curved drapery and chair, and creates balance between the strong vertical lines indicated by the column and figure. If you imagine the scene without the chair, and with the soldier grasping his musket (an approach most photographers might have taken), the image becomes less interesting. The lighting, from the subject's left, creates a fine contrast on his face. The light has also caused a glint on the bayonet and upper half of the musket, emphasizing the subject's military connection. In combination with the simple uniform coat, unadorned by decoration (save his corporal's stripes) or accoutrement, the image informs us in a nuanced way that this is an amateur soldier — a volunteer — rather than a professional soldier.

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