Joseph T. Zealy was born in 1812 in Charleston, South Carolina, one of nine children born to Beaufort native James Zealy and his wife Rebecca Parsonage Zealy. Little is known about his childhood, education, or professional training. At age 24, he married Sarah Bell Badger, and the couple raised four children, Lavinia, Anna, Richard, and Mary. Mr. Zealy moved his growing family to Orangeburg, where he obtained employment as a carpenter and building contractor. Apparently, during this period, he received daguerreotype instruction, but the exact source remains unknown.
Mr. Zealy opened his first daguerreotype studio in South Carolina's capital city of Columbia in late 1846. His gallery quickly became an immediate success among the local residents. The appreciation for his aesthetically pleasing but affordable portraits was expressed by one happy customer, who composed a poem for the photographer, which read in part:
TO MR. ZEALY, THE DISTINGUISHED ARTIST,
IN RETURN FOR THE PRESENT OF
MY HUSBAND'S DAGUERREOTYPE.
My Husband's picture to the life,
O, bless the art to which I owe it!
Her thanks would, now, a grateful wife
Return to him, who did bestow it.
By 1849, Mr. Zealy was producing color daguerreotypes - one of the first of their kind - and was known for utilizing the latest photographic equipment and processes. By the 1850s, his gallery featured an impressive skylight, which allowed the operator to delicately manipulate light and shadow. Unbeknownst to Mr. Zealy, it would be a team of educators led by Professor Louis Agassiz that would cement his eventual photographic legacy. Dr. Agassiz commissioned Mr. Zealy to photograph several of B. F. Taylor's Columbia plantation slaves as part of an anthropological project in which he theorized that humans were not comprised of a single species. The result was 15 daguerreotypes of first- and second-generation slaves (men, women, and children), mostly nudes, that focused on body types for comparative analysis. These images, believed to be the first of their type, were not publicized at the time, and were later harshly criticized by twentieth-century historians for perpetuating racial stereotypes while promoting white superiority.
After the project was completed, Mr. Zealy returned to local portraiture, often competing in state fairs and professional competitions. He advertised $1 ambrotypes and expanded his business to include life-size daguerreotype enlargements. He continued operating his Columbia gallery throughout the Civil War, until the Union army burned down his home and studio on February 15, 1865. He attempted to salvage the structure, aptly renaming the building 'the Phoenix,' but was forced to open a mercantile business to supplement his income. After recouping enough of his losses to retire comfortably, Mr. Zealy spent his later years enjoying the company of family and friends. His wife died in 1880 while visiting relatives, and ironically, while visiting his daughter and son-in-law years' later, Mr. Zealy died of heart failure in Walton County, Georgia in 1893. His slave daguerreotypes, believed to be long forgotten, were discovered in 1975 at Harvard University' Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, that were later incorporated into Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art's (Fort Worth, Texas) "Nineteenth Century Photography" exhibition in 1992. Their anthropological significance may always be argued by historians, but the artistry of J. T. Zealy's portraits will never be in dispute.
1995 American Art, Vol. IX (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 39-40, 46, 48, 51.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 1014.
1913 A History of Savannah and South Georgia, Vol. II, by William Harden (Chicago, IL: The Lewis Publishing Company), pp. 760-761.
2007 Ordering the Façade by Katherine Henninger (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), p. 61.
2001 Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940 by Harvey S. Teal (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press), pp. 28-32.
1852 Photographic Art-Journal, Vol. III (New York: W. B. Smith), p. 257.
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