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Tue, 08.26.1873

Cornelius Battey, Photographer born

Cornelius Battey

*Cornelius Battey was born on this date in 1873.  He was a Black photographer who shot photographic portraits of African America in a Pictorialist style.

Cornelius Marion Battey was born in Augusta, Georgia, but was raised in the North. His first job in photography was in a studio in Cleveland, Ohio. He moved to Manhattan, New York City, and worked for six years in the Bradley Photographic Studio on Fifth Avenue, where he held the superintendent position. He worked at Underwood & Underwood, one of the city's successful early 20th-century photo studios, where he headed up the retouching department.  Battey eventually opened a business on Mott Street in New York with a white partner named Battey and Warren Studio.

He shot idealized photographic portraits of black people, some famous and some not. One of his earliest known photographs is of Frederick Douglass, shot in 1893, just two years before Douglass's death. His style was pictorialist, characterized by soft focus and retouching the negatives and prints to smooth out any irregularities. Battey became a friend of W. E. B. Du Bois then edited The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Battey's portraits of America's Black leaders began regularly appearing on the cover of The Crisis. He also shot covers for The Messenger magazine and the journal Opportunity

As his fame grew, he photographed white leaders such as President Calvin Coolidge and the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft.  Starting around 1900, Battey began extensively documenting the life of Booker T. Washington, continuing until Washington died in 1915. Along with Arthur P. Bedou, he was one of the two photographers Washington most relied on, especially during northern trips. Battey's formal, quiet studio portraits complemented Bedou's more journalistic, snapshot style. In 1916, Battey replaced Bedou as the official photographer of the Tuskegee Institute.

The administration partly favored him because it wanted to set up a photography department. Battey had connections with Eastman Kodak, whose founder, George Eastman, had been a longtime school supporter. Eastman donated funds to the new department, which Battey then headed up until his death a decade later. Battey taught photography courses and, at the same time, documented the campus and its students and faculty, creating a unique record of Black college life in the early twentieth century. Among those he mentored was photographer P. H. Polk.  

During his years at Tuskegee, Battey published a special print edition that visually linked four famous Blacks with George Washington to reclaim black Americans' place in history. Originally entitled Five Negro Immortals, the photogravure was published in 1911 as Our Heroes of Destiny and included Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Battey lost substantial money on the costly project, even though he sold inexpensive print versions and marketed the individual portraits as frameable prints and postcards.  

 In 1921, when the New York Public Library's 135th St. branch in Harlem held its first exhibition of work by Black artists, "The Negro Artists," Battey was one of two photographers to have work in the show (the other being Lucy Calloway).  Cornelius Battey died at Tuskegee, Alabama, on March 14, 1927, in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Augusta, Georgia.  After Battey died, his negatives were packed up and stored under conditions that eventually destroyed them. As a result, Tuskegee Institute has only a few surviving prints from Battey's years of documentary work.  In 1989, Battey's work was included in the exhibition "Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest" at the Williams College Museum of Art. 

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