Black & White Portrait Of a Man Wearing a Suit, Hat & Smoking a Cigar.
Black and White Portrait Of a Man, Wearing a Suit, Hat and Smoking a Cigar.
G. W. Davis is mentioned often for the hiring of James Conway Farley, a prominent black photographer, at a time when that was unusual. He is also said to have fired other employees who objected.
A 1907 photo of the Brown studio at 603 N. Second St. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress American Memory collection)
Brown was born into slavery in 1852 in Orange County, the son of Willis and Winnie Brown.
“The whole family was enslaved near Barboursville,” says Michael Brown, George O. Brown’s great-grandson. “This lineage comes down to me from my father’s side.” The family moved to Richmond after the Civil War.
Photographer James C. Farley (top row, second from right) was a member of Mechanics Savings Bank’s Board of Directors. This photo ran in the Richmond Planet on Jan. 6, 1906. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Davis owned and operated a photo studio and gallery at 827 Broad St.; the Richmond city directory lists Davis’ business in two locations over the span of a quarter-century, from 1875 to 1900. Though not much is known about Davis, he is “often noted for hiring African-American photographers James Conway Farley (in 1875) and George O. Brown (in 1879),” reads a notation on one of Davis’ photos dated 1893, archived in Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Cabell Branch Library. Michael Brown says the relationship between his great-grandfather and Farley evolved from time spent as co-workers at Davis’ studio into a partnership as co-operators at a new studio, Jefferson Art Gallery.
Michael Brown provided this family pendant that holds a photograph of his great-grandfather George O. Brown for the BHMVA exhibition. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
“According to our family’s oral history, [Brown and Farley] worked behind the scenes at Davis’ studio, setting up the lights and the scenes, mixing the chemicals used to develop the photos, and learning the skills of photography,” Brown says. “Eventually, they parted ways with Davis and went into business together. Farley’s wife paid my great-grandfather money and entered into a three-year contract with him to [operate] parts of the business.” Farley founded Jefferson Fine Art Gallery in 1895; he and Brown worked there until 1899 when Brown founded his own studio, the Old Dominion Gallery.
Brown’s primary style of photography was portraiture; through his lens, he cast thousands of black Richmonders and Virginians as determined, upwardly mobile residents, though in reality they were denied the full rights of citizenship. “One of [the Brown gallery’s] most celebrated portraits is of the businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker (1867-1934), founder of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank,” writes photographer and scholar Deborah Willis in her 2000 book, “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to Present.”
“Through [George O. Brown’s] award-winning portraits, and that of his descendants, we are privy to the vast contributions of the black experience in Richmond and the commonwealth,” says historian and educator Elvatrice Belsches. A researcher for the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” Belsches served as curator of the BHMVA’s “Yesterday’s Stories” exhibition. She notes that Brown’s work was recognized nationally.
Maggie L. Walker’s grandchildren, Maggie Laura, Elizabeth, Armistead and Mamie. (Photo courtesy Maggie L. Walker Historic Site)
“He was awarded a silver medal at the Jamestown Tercentennial in 1907,” Belsches says. The Tercentennial was one of a series of “world’s fair”-style expositions across the country, meant to celebrate the social achievements and technological advancements of the age while observing a historically significant date. At the Tercentennial of 1907, over 2 million attendees witnessed an array of exhibitions, including a display of African-American inventions and innovations. After taking home the award, Brown’s studio featured a photo of it in their newspaper advertisements.
Ultimately, his great-grandfather should be remembered as a “visual historian,” says Michael, now 71 himself. Pioneering black photographers like Brown and Farley may not have realized it fully, but they were “documenting history, providing people with documentation of their family or their business.
Item Code - VIS12E57A31REA
Width: 6 1/4" Height: 9 1/4" Depth: 1/16" Weight: 68 g
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