James Presley (J. P.) Ball, Sr. was born a free black in Virginia in 1825. In the 1840s, he met John B. Bailey, an African-American photographer from Boston in White Sulphur Springs, which at that time was still a part of Virginia. Bailey introduced Ball to the recently invented daguerreotype process.
The Cincinnati Years
By 1845, Ball opened his own daguerrean studio in Cincinnati, but was unable to attract enough business. He became a traveling photographer, a fairly common practice at the time. He worked in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. He had a measure of success during the year he spent in Richmond, Virginia before returning to Ohio. He opened a new studio with his brother Thomas Ball in Cincinnati in 1851.
This time, Ball’s studio was so successful it became well known outside Ohio. Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion featured an illustration of it in their April 1, 1854 issue. Ball entered his work in photography expositions at the Ohio Mechanics Institute during the 1850s. He produced a number of daguerreotypes of white citizens of Cincinnati, most likely as a result of his strong ties to the abolitionist movement.
In 1855, he authored a pamphlet that accompanied the panorama entitled Mammoth Pictorial tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna rivers, Niagara Falls & C. The panorama of multiple pictures was hundreds of yards long and exhibited by rolling it between two widely separated poles.
The panorama and pamphlet were staunchly anti-slavery and presented from the slave’s point of view. The panorama was exhibited in Cincinnati and Boston.
Ball promoted his brother-in-law Alexander Thomas to full partner in 1857. Thomas had been working for him since 1852 and had married Ball’s sister Elizabeth. Nineteenth century historian George W. Williams hailed the Ball & Thomas studio as “the finest photographic gallery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”
On the Move, South and West
In the 1870s and 1880s, Ball was on the move again, residing for a time in Mississippi and Louisiana. By 1887 Ball was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was chosen as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation held in the city.
Later that year he moved to Helena in Montana Territory. He again opened a studio and photographed the multi-racial residents, including Chinese immigrants. He later recorded newsworthy events including public executions and the construction of the state capitol.
In the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii
Around 1900 Ball joined his son J. P. Ball, Jr. in Seattle for several years. His last home was Honolulu, Hawaii. It is believed he moved to a warmer climate to ease his painful rheumatism. Ball died in Honolulu at age 79.
Throughout his career, Ball photographed a number of luminaries including Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, the mother and sister of Ulysses S. Grant, P. T. Barnum, opera singer Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
Ball’s rich photographic record survives in a number of collections. The largest repository of his images is held by the Cincinnati Museum Center.