Here is a circa 1882 image of Black Star, a member of the Osage tribe, taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas. This was an incredible find, for me, and the back marks on the CDV are fortunate in that they facilitate a discussion about provenance, something that unlike say artistic style or means of production comparatively little has been written academically. Provenance, the history of ownership of an art object, is of considerable importance when the object is rare, quite possibly unique, and of considerable value. A documented provenance can help prove authenticity, and adds to the cachet of ownership – to have a Michelangelo drawing on ones’ wall, for example, is to share ownership of that drawing with kings and clergy, princes and museums.
In this case, the provenance is incomplete, but there is more to it than is usually found with such objects. Only with the rise of art photography in the late 19th/early 20th century do you have much in the way of documentation of provenance for photographs. It is comparatively easy to trace the ownership history of an Ansel Adams print, where oftentimes the gallery that originally sold the print is still in business, and the past owners or their immediate heirs are still alive. But tracing that provenance for something like one of my Mathew Brady daguerreotypes, where even the sitter’s identity is unknown, is a near impossibility.
However, this image, with the subject’s identity hand-written on the back, and the photographers’ studio back stamp, presents the beginnings of possibility. There is a known moment in time and space where this was created – I found the studio of Cook & Bergeron to be operating in Fort Smith for only a few brief years, 1881-1884. At some point, this image was consciously collected, by a Dr. Albert Leffingwell of Dansville, New York, who felt it was important enough to stamp the back of the CDV with his library stamp. Dr. Leffingwell was a famous physician and author, champion of vivisection reform. When it made it into his hands, and for how long, is undocumented, as is what happened to it after his passing.
I acquired it from a dealer in Paris, France. So the CDV has travelled a long and circuitous route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Dansville, New York, to Paris to Washington, DC with unknown stops in-between. I hope this blog post will some day serve as documentation of the provenance of this image for a future owner.