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. By 1871, George O. had joined Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in
Richmond, located in the heart of the Jackson Ward community, according to historian Gregg D. Kimball’s entry on George O. Brown in the “Dictionary of Virginia Biography.” George O. also opened a bank account at Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., Kimball writes, and the company’s records listed him as being employed at a Richmond photographic gallery. “By 1879 he was working at the photographic gallery of George W. Davis,” Kimball writes.
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.” In the photo Willis references, Walker is swathed in a dark lace dress, her face bearing a dignified expression beneath rolls of glossy hair pinned below a large, plumed hat. It is telling of his photo studio’s reputation for excellence that a woman of Walker’s stature would select the business to capture her image on camera.
A Visual Legacy
Bettie G. Mason was a teacher at Richmond’s Navy Hill School whom Brown married in 1881. The pair had four children; a son and a daughter died in infancy. The two who survived, Bessie Gwendola Brown and George Willis Brown, learned all aspects of the family photography business from their father. As the business thrived, the Browns’ photography studio adopted the slogan “Portraits that please,” snapping photos of black life in Virginia and it's capital city — funerals, architecture, commemorations of graduations and christenings. Bessie and George Willis inherited the studio after their father’s death in 1910. For the next six decades, their photography business endured, piloted first by both siblings, and then, after George Willis’ death in 1946, by Bessie.
“Through [George O. Brown’s] award-winning portraits, and that of his descendants, we are privy to the vast contributions of these superb visual archivists in chronicling virtually every facet 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.
Michael Brown, a semiretired political campaign consultant who lives in Richmond, says that though his forebears left a weighty legacy, he never felt forced to take up the mantle: “My brother and I had little Brownie cameras, but it was nothing like, ‘OK, boy, your granddaddy had a business, your great-granddaddy had a business, you’ve got to do this.’ They did not do that at all. I had a little Brownie camera that I played around with, but that was about it.” Still, the knack for images rubbed off on his generation.
“As far as the lineage in terms of photography, my youngest brother, Albert Wilder Brown, was a photographer,” Michael says. “He did not work for the family business — by the time he became an adult, they had closed it down.” During a 25-year career, “Albert worked for Miller & Rhoads as a photographer, and he later moved on to Caston Studio.” Albert Brown died in 2009.
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. They were reflecting their community,” Michael says. “They provided a gift to us, and to future generations.”
Item Code - VIS12E57A31REA
Width: 6 1/4" Height: 9 1/4" Depth: 1/16" Weight: 68 g
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