I was inspired to do a bit more digging into a photographer whose images I’ve shown here before, Kets Kemethy. He was a Hungarian photographer who settled in Washington DC and operated a studio here. The inspiration came from a book I bought myself for Christmas entitled “Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery“. The book talks about African-Americans and their presence in photography from the antebellum period through to the 20th century. The book constructs a theory of race, social systems and politics to explain the narrative that frames and constructs the images in the book, but it does so in a reasoned, supportable manner that does not leave non-academic readers grasping for dictionaries and water-pitchers just to finish a page.
I have a Kets Kemethy photo of an African-American young man that I’d like to try and date more precisely, so I wanted to do some digging into the studio’s history and see if there was anything published about him. I have found another African-American subject by him, so I was wondering if his practice specifically catered to well-to-do African-Americans (although 2 for 2 is hardly a statistically meaningful or accurate sampling). I did find this article from the 1902 Washington Times: there was a bit of a scandal in the Kemethy studio where Mrs. Kemethy shot at either her husband and/or a female customer who may or may not have been his mistress.
Washington Times, October 29, 1902
I also found a listing for his studio in Boyd’s Directory of Businesses from 1903, which is contemporaneous with the 1902 newspaper article, and an entry in the Photographic Times from 1890. Another image that shows up for Mr. Kemethy is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, of Henry Wood Elliot, sent to the Bibliotheque in 1884, according to the letter on Smithsonian letterhead. So this gives me some placement in time – Mr. Kemethy was working around the turn of the 20th century, so based on the size and style my image is probably from the 1890s. In all likelihood then the young man in my photo would have been born free, but it would also have been highly likely that his parents were born into slavery.