by Gerald Boerner
Jules Lion was a free man of color who emigrated from France and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had learned photography in its early days and was a skilled Daguerreotyper. He proceeded to photograph his adopted city and its people, especially people of color. He is reported to have even photographed Andrew Jackson. He sets a standard of skill and initiative that was not found in most of the other people of color, but for whom he could be a role model. We honor him on this first day of Black History month. GLB
“Mr. Lion was a "freeman of colour," ie., of mixed race, not "black," as the term would have been understood in the early 19th century. I believe some of his photographs have been on display fairly recently at the Confederate Memorial Hall in downtown New Orleans.”
— William Kuhn
“I recently purchase a piece of Confederate Sheet Music (1861) published by A.E. Blackmar of New Oeleans: Yhe Beauregard Manassis Quick-Step by "A. Noir". The ithograpg of General Beauregrad on the cover of the music was signed ‘J. Lion.’ ”
— Danny Crew
“Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you can.”
— Arthur Ashe
“The past is a ghost, the future a dream. All we ever have is now.”
— Bill Cosby
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.”
— Maya Angelou
“Just like you can buy grades of silk, you can buy grades of justice.”
— Ray Charles
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
— Muhammad Ali
“There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution…”
— Frederick Douglass
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Jules Lion (c. 1809-1866)
Jules Lion, born in France, was an early American photographer. He was the first African American photographer, opening a daguerrotype studio in New Orleans in 1840 one year after the invention of the process. He best-known work was a series of lithographs of prominent Louisianans, including Andrew Jackson. Jules Lion, a free man of color, first introduced photography to New Orleans in 1844.
When photography came to America, Jules Lion met the boat. The first successful photographic process was only a year old in 1840 when Lion opened his daguerreotype studio in New Orleans. That made him the first African-American photographer. But the thing that sets the African-American photographic tradition apart is not its length or its numerous geniuses. It’s the point of view, the unique perspective that photographers like James VanDerZee brought to his celebratory pictures of Harlem high life, or that 19th-century photographer J. P. Ball demonstrated when he produced a triptych of a freed slave in Montana who is posed for his portrait, then photographed being hanged for murder and lastly shown in his coffin. The difference was not about access, it was about attitude.
Any photographer–black or white–could have walked down a Harlem street in 1964 and taken a picture of an ebullient Malcolm X walking with Muhammad Ali after Ali won the heavyweight title. But white photographers did not take pictures of Malcolm X laughing. It took Robert L. Haggins, a black man, to make that photograph.
In "Reflections in Black," currently at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, curator Deborah Willis tells this story better than it has ever been told before–or shown: the majority of the 300 images in this first-ever retrospective of black photography have never been exhibited. And although she has written widely before on African-American photography, here she lays out everything she knows. Combining the work of professionals and amateurs, documentarians and deconstructionists, she gives us what amounts to an extraordinary family album of the black American experience (for a touring schedule, see box. The book version, published by Norton, will appear in June and will contain an additional 200 images).
Jules Lion drew the illustrated
image of the famous composer
Harry Macarthy with his wife
Lottie Estelle on the cover of
this patriotic Confederate sheet
music, which included his famous composition The Bonnie Blue
Flag. Lion’s likeness of Macarthy
is only one of three known to
exist-none of them
The result of Willis’s groundbreaking effort is both delightful and unsettling, because it undermines our expectations with almost every image. Black photographers rarely knew each other, especially in photography’s first century, but from the outset their agenda was remarkably similar. First and last, they used their art as a corrective to mainstream white culture’s pictures of blacks. Whether the people in these pictures were rich or poor, they were never stereotypes. From the beginning, the photographers vigilantly guarded their subjects’ individuality and dignity. More often than not the people posing were all too happy to take on that job themselves. P. H. Polk, an early-20th-century photographer schooled at the Tuskegee Institute, liked his subjects sitting down. But in a picture simply called "The Boss," his camera confronts a rather large, elderly woman who would not sit down. With a bandanna on her head, her hands on her hips and a defiant expression on her face, this wonderful woman gives us the ultimate anti-Aunt Jemima.
"Reflections in Black" battles cliches at every turn, but it also uncovers some surprising continuities. The techniques of contemporary photographer Carrie Mae Weems are quite similar to the postmodern contrivances of artist Cindy Sherman, for example. Both women pose themselves as characters in a narrative, but while Weems’s work is very much of the moment, her themes have preoccupied black photographers for 160 years: the search for a sense of family, community and self. Like the rest of this show, her work is about identity and about having a say. Who knew there were this many kinds of eloquence?
Jules Lion’s Work
Jules Lion was an early New Orleans daguerreotypist, lithographer, and educator. The Amoeblog describes his work as follows:
The daguerreotype was the precursor to the modern photography process; an image is exposed directly onto a highly polished silver metal plate, its surface coated with silver halide particles deposited by iodine vapor– a later advancement was the use of bromine and chlorine vapors to shorten the exposure time. The daguerreotype produced a negative image, but the mirrored surface of the plate reflects the captured image, making it appear positive once light is exposed to the photograph. Early experimenters had tinkered with the idea of photography for over a hundred years, but it was Louis Daguerre who finally perfected the technique in about 1839. Less then a year later the rich history of American photography began in New Orleans at #3 St Charles Street, in the private studio/residence of Jules Lion, "a freeman of color," who opened the first daguerreotype studio in New Orleans and one of the very first in the entire United States.
Born in 1810 in Paris, France, Jules Lion was the first of about fifty documented black daguerreotypists who operated galleries/studios in the first half of the 19th century in the U.S. He originally moved to New Orleans from France in 1837 where he was a lithographer and portrait painter — at the Exposition of Paris of 1833 he was the youngest lithographer to be awarded an honorable mention. It’s believed that Lion returned briefly to Paris in 1839 and 1840 to study photography with Louis Daguerre. Upon his return Lion exhibited his first daguerreotypes in New Orleans in 1840; unfortunately only a couple of them have survived. By 1841 in New Orleans, he was lecturing on photography, co-founded an art school and was running a successful studio. Not much more is known of Jules Lion, except the occasional newspaper announcement and city records listing him as a professor of drawing at the College of Louisiana from 1852 to 1865. In his later years he returned to painting portraitures. Among his most famous commissions were portraits of President Andrew Jackson and naturalist John J. Audubon. Throughout his career he continued teaching and occasionally returning to Paris to exhibit his lithographs and daguerreotypes until his death in New Orleans in 1866.
(Please check out this blog entry at the reference below.)
Reflections in Black
Reading the subtitle, A History of Black Photographers, one may expect an equivalent to Lewis W. Hine’s Children at Work, but the book by Deborah Willis – a curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution who has earlier taught photography and the history of photography at New York University, the City University of New York and the Brooklyn Museum – offers quite a different content. Reflections in Black does not mainly document the misery of black men in America through the works of African-American photographers. The images of pride, dignity, beauty and success show that the black photographers were not obsessed with race, racism and documenting the Jim Crow system. Their work is largely a recognition of the cultural contributions of African Americans to American society in sports, music, dance, literature, politics and a celebration of black social and economic life.
This first comprehensive history of black photographers by Deborah Willis illustrates the work of African American photography from 1840 to the present. Just one year after the daguerreotype was invented in 1939, Jules Lion, "a freeman of colour", opened a studio in New Orleans. Rapidly, hundreds of free men and women established themselves as professional photographers, documenting, independently from each other, life in their communities. From the very beginning, these photographers used the camera to reclaim their people’s experiences and lives, giving their people both humanity and individuality, resisting all the pressure on and stereotypes about African Americans. The nearly 600 photographs assembled by Willis document black life from the last generation of slaves to the present day.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Jules Lion can be found at…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Newsweek.com: Black On Black (Jules Lion)…
amoeblog.com: Jules Lion…
Art Blart: Exhibition… “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americas”…
Vanity Fair: Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey…