James Wallace Black was born to a carpenter and his wife in Francestown, New Hampshire on February 10, 1825. Orphaned while still in his teens, the boy took work wherever he could find it - in a tannery in Lowell, Massachusetts and then in a cotton mill - before becoming a daguerreotype apprentice at John A. Lerow's Boston studio during the 1840s. After spending a few years as an itinerant photographer, he became a machine operator and plate polisher at L.. Hale & Company in Boston. After a brief partnership with Loyal M. Ives, Mr. Black became John Adams Whipple's apprentice in 1850, and quickly established himself as an expert in the new crystalotype technique.
Mr. Whipple rewarded his talented pupil by making him a partner in his business, which operated as Whipple & Black from 1856 until 1859. During this period, Mr. Black honed his portrait skills, and while he was personally more interested in photographic composition and the manipulation of positive and negative space, he became professionally known for capturing the emotional essence of his subjects in natural poses. Utilizing the crystalotype process he perfected, Mr. Black received critical praise for his New Hampshire landscape photographs. According to art historian Sally Pierce, what sets these landscape views apart are their textural characteristics that mirror the rustic terrain of the region. Also at this time, Mr. Black began experimenting with astronomical photography at the Harvard Observatory.
For reasons that remain unclear, Whipple & Black ended their partnership in 1859. That same year, Mr. Black married Frances Georgianna Sharp, and of their children, daughter Olive born in 1861 and son Otis Fisher born in 1867 survived to adulthood. To support his growing family, Mr. Black partnered with daguerreotypist Perez M. Batchelder and purchased J. B. Heywood's studio in 1860. The company soon became known for stereo views, cartes-de-visite, and portraiture. Mr. Black's photograph of abolitionist John Brown now resides in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, and in 1860 made the now famous portrait of poet Walt Whitman.
Also in 1860, Mr. Black experimented with aerial photography, but encountered numerous problems developing wet collodion plates from the balloon's basket. However, in October of that year, he was successful in photographing downtown Boston in the "Queen of the Air" balloon owned and navigated by Samuel A. King. Of the eight plates made at 1,200 feet, one successful print, "Boston as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It", was produced. Impressed with the result, the Union Army began using aerial photography during the Civil War. At around this time, Mr. Black also began utilizing a porcelain that was acclaimed by his colleagues (including John Adams Whipple) for its delicate qualities and durability.
After dissolving his partnership with Mr. Batchelder in 1862, Mr. Black enjoyed solo success before partnering with John G. Case from 1864 until 1867. In 1872, Mr. Black captured views of the Great Boston Fire, which were published nationally, and he sold more than 150 small and large albumen prints, which sold for $1.50 and $3.00. In his later years, Mr. Black operated as Black & Company, and concentrated primarily upon producing lantern slides. He was an active member of the National Photographic Association and a founder of the Boston Photographic Union (renamed the Boston Photographic Association). J. W. Black contracted pneumonia and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 5, 1896. His son Otis operated the studio until it closed in 1901. Mr. Black's photographs can currently be found at several locations including the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenaeum, and the George Eastman House.
1896 March, Wilson's Photographic Magazine, p.120
2012 Catchers of the Light (Paphos, Cyprus: Stefan Hughes), p. 360.
1984 Culture and Record: Nineteenth Century Photographs from the University of New Mexico Art Museum (Madison, WI: The Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), p. 23.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. II (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 164-165.
2010 Faneuil Hall (Boston Public Library Print Department). (URL: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/boston_public_library/5352268413/).
A complete set of J.W. Black landscape views of Boston in circa 1875 can be seen at the Boston Public Library Flickr group
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