Cornelius Marion Battey’s Photographic Portraits to be Auctioned for First Time

Swann's October 8th African-American Fine Art auction marks the first time that early photographer Cornelius Marion Battey’s photographic portraits will come to auction. These photographs were recently discovered in the bottom of a cedar chest in Battey’s family’s attic in Tuskegee, Alabama, near Tuskegee University. A teacher, artist, historian, and mentor to a generation of African-American photographers, his photographs provide a unique narrative of early 20th century African-American life.

Born in 1873 in Augusta, Georgia, Battey spent his early career in the Midwest and New York, where he photographed writers, statesmen and other prominent figures in African-American society. Not simply a portrait photographer, Battey was an artist who embraced the pictorialist movement led by renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz. By working in a highly stylized manner, Battey softened the details around his sitters' features as if with a paintbrush, casting a glow around them.

Battey photographed such prominent figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Presidents Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft. His portrait of Du Bois is now considered the iconic image of the early civil rights activist. In 1916, Battey became the head of the Tuskegee Institute’s new photography department, the Alabama college started by Douglass to promote education and vocational training for African Americans. Battey was also Tuskegee’s official photographer, and he documented campus life. He remained at Tuskegee until his death in 1927. Battey kept close ties to colleagues in New York, entering photographic competitions and illustrating the cover of prominent African-American publications The Crisis and Opportunity.

In 1989, the Williams College Art Museum exhibited “Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest,” which featured Battey’s photographs alongside works by Gordon Parks and James VanDerZee. His photographs have since been featured in photography exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the University of Minnesota Art Museum, the Oakland Museum of California and Hampton University.

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