February 28, 2020

J. P. Ball: Legendary African-American Photographer in Montana

Jeff Malcomson
Photograph Archives Manager
Montana Historical Society

Portrait of a music teacher, Helena,
ca.1887-1900 (Catalog # Lot 22 B8 F15 02)

From the unusual circumstance of being born to free black parents in 1825 Virginia, James Presley Ball lived a long life as a pioneering photographer and businessman.  Ball applied a portion of his pioneering spirit to his steady movement westward across the country, and another portion he applied to his early adoption and development of photographic skills and entrepreneurship.  Ball also pioneered as a social activist, using his photography for the advancement of African American rights and social and political acceptance.  [Ball’s intriguing life can be followed in an online exhibit created by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives where you can also browse or search nearly 300 of his photographs .

J. P. Ball arrived in Helena, Montana, late in life sometime in the fall of 1887, just two years before Montana achieved statehood.  He was an experienced and successful photographer, having worked decades since 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and many other locations.  He strongly supported the abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War, and in the years following it he continued to promote the political and social advancement of African Americans.  His son, J. P. Ball, Jr. came to Helena with him, sharing his father’s political views and his father’s business, a photography studio then known as J. P. Ball and Son.  J. P. Ball Jr. published and edited a short-lived newspaper in Helena called The Colored Citizen, while his father remained active in the Republican Party and at one time served as president of the Afro-American Club, a state-wide support group for the black community in Montana.  Ball saw the Montana Territory become a state in 1889, Helena become the state capital in 1894, and he photographed the laying of the cornerstone for the Montana State Capitol building in 1899.  Ball followed his son to Seattle in 1900 and died in 1904.

Ball photographed a series of views from the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the Montana State Capitol building in Helena on the 4th of July 1899 (Catalog # 957-627).

Though very little of his written record remains in Montana, Ball’s photographic legacy in the Treasure State is preserved through over 100 known Ball photographs in the collections of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. He was first and foremost a master of studio portraiture; most of his extant work is individual studio portraits. Ball served all members of the Helena community, taking portraits of a U. S. Senator, a Chinese cook, an immigrant family fresh from Europe, and many other Helenans, both white and black. However, he occasionally took his camera outside to photograph significant events. His work documenting two public executions in Helena in 1896 is some of the most intriguing work by any photographer in 19th century Montana. We recently digitized over twenty of Ball’s more interesting photos. These can be browsed here on the Montana Memory Project. Several select images are displayed below.

Portrait of 'Tex' Rose, the long-time caretaker
at the Broadwater Hotel in Helena,
ca. 1891-1900 (Catalog # 957-598)
Portrait of an unidentified man, ca.1887-1900
(Catalog # 957-602)
Portrait of William Biggerstaff, a convicted
murderer, prior to his public hanging,
April 1896 (Catalog # 957-610)
Portrait of the body of William Biggerstaff, after his public hanging, April 1896 (Catalog # 957-613). For Ball’s images of his public execution and that of William Gay see the photos on the Montana Memory Project link above.