It is altogether fitting that a Frederick Douglass quote is prominently featured in this trilogy of Black lives spanning 175 years of photography. In his 1861 “Lecture on Pictures,” Douglass observed “What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
Douglass, one of the most photographed individuals of his time, understood the value of the camera as a tool to shape American memory. Ross J. Kelbaugh, a leading authority and influential figure in the field of photo history and image collecting, amplifies the power of Douglass’ words in this set of three books, Black Lives in Focus. The volumes are illustrated with original photographs, engravings, documents and other rare artifacts drawn from the author’s extensive collection. Together, they reveal the larger story of Blacks in America from enslavement in colonial and antebellum times, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and from Jim Crow to the election of President Barack Obama.
Kelbaugh, Maryland-born and educated, brings considerable experience as a professional educator to this series. During his 30 years as a teacher in the Baltimore County Public Schools, Kelbaugh encouraged the exploration of history through relics. The county’s chief executive praised his career in the classroom as a “lifetime of commitment to providing a positive and productive learning environment for young people.”
Kelbaugh also brings a lifetime of collecting to the project. He started with coins and stamps in elementary school, and later discovered early photography during the Civil War Centennial. Since then, he has authored numerous books, including Introduction to Civil War Photography, published in 1991 and currently in its seventh printing.
Images in the Kelbaugh collection have appeared in past issues of Military Images, including the carte de visite of Mary Dines pictured on the back of Part II. Dines escaped slavery in Maryland and fled to Washington, D.C., where she spent time at a Freedman’s camp and sang for Abraham Lincoln. Another photograph, a Union soldier portrait discovered at a Massachusetts auction, graced the cover of our Autumn 2018 issue and the cover of Part II of Black Lives.
In Black Lives, Kelbaugh presents the material in a thoughtful and coherent manner. Ever the collector, he places the photographs and other artifacts in the spotlight. They provide entry points into the larger story, each a microhistory that connects to people and events that influenced the course of American history on its long arc to a more perfect union. Ever the educator, he serves up a wealth of research that humanizes and personalizes the subject.
In artifacts and prose, Black Lives reflects the joys and sorrows of the African-American experience. See the ambrotype of two children, hands touching, with a period paper label attached to the cover glass that reads “Peculiar Institution.” See another ambrotype of a young Union soldier with a knife and revolver tucked into his waistbelt. See the gelatin silver print of Red Cross nurses with one of their number dressed as a Doughboy. These are only a few examples of the array of important images found in Black Lives. The series is a must have for all.
Black Lives in Focus: Selections from the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection of African American History
Part 1: Colonial-Antebellum America
Part II: The Civil War & Reconstruction
Part III: Jim Crow to Barack Obama
By Ross J. Kelbaugh
64, 86, and 124 pages
SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.
LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.
VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.