Historical photographs are usually handled with extreme care — held with gloves, stored with acid-free paper and protective sleeves, and hidden away from light and heat.
But when Hollywood producer Joey McFarland showed up to the red carpet premiere of the movie Emancipation last month in Los Angeles, he showed off what he said was an original photograph of an enslaved man known as “Whipped Peter,” who inspired the Apple film starring Will Smith that he produced.
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“This is the original photograph from 1863,” McFarland told Variety at the event. “And I wanted it to be here tonight. I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight. It’s sad to say that so many photographs have not been preserved or curated or respected.”
McFarland’s brandishing of the photograph, as well as his comments to Variety, were immediately pilloried by prominent Black entertainment and cultural figures, like Franklin Leonard, a film executive and founder of the Black List, an annual survey of the most-liked motion picture screenplays not yet in production, and Nayyera Haq, a SiriusXM radio host.
Leonard, Haq, and others honed in on the obscenity of McFarland carrying the photograph at the premiere like one might bring a rare first-edition comic to a superhero movie and expressed alarm at the fact that the image was in private hands, rather than at an institution like the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
In regards to the latter, subject matter experts told ARTnews that McFarland’s ownership of the “Whipped Peter” image is indicative of a much larger issue. Namely that the widespread ownership of Black historical images by private collectors and the increasing value of that memorabilia in recent years poses serious challenges to preservation efforts.
‘Whipped Peter’ Is Well-Known to Historians
The “Whipped Peter” image, better known as “The Scourged Back,” is one of the most well-known images of slavery in the U.S. In the photo, a runaway slave named Gordon is shown with severe, raised keloid scars from being whipped on a Mississippi plantation.
Shortly after it was taken by McPherson & Oliver in 1863, Harper’s Weekly published the image. It —and Gordon’s story— quickly became popular and the image was distributed widely, as a popular photographic card-sized print, known as a carte de visite, or a CDV for short. Numerous photography studios produced and sold their own CDVs of the image.
As such, there is no shortage of “The Scourged Back” CDVs: the Library of Congress holds one from the original photographers; the National Portrait Gallery has a copy produced by Mathew Brady’s studio; and the New York Public Library has a copy by Charles Seaver’s studio.
It is unclear who produced the CDV owned by McFarland. However, it is original in the sense that it was produced during the time period, Helena Zinkham, chief of the prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, told ARTnews in an email.
But “The Scourged Back” is far from the only CDV, or historical black photograph, owned by McFarland. After the Emancipation premiere backlash, it was revealed that McFarland owns an entire collection of historical black photographs, many of which he posted to Instagram under the hashtag #McFarland Collection. For example, McFarland posted an 1884 CDV of formerly enslaved person Lewis Charlton, which sold at Swann Auctions Galleries for $406 in 2015. Earlier this year, McFarland posted an 1863 CDV by McPherson & Oliver of two young black men that sold for $17,500 and was considered rare by Swann.
In some respects, McFarland’s collection is not unusual. According to Ron Coddington, editor and publisher of Civil War photography magazine Military Images and an active CDV collector, CDVs were originally meant to be held privately. “Their destination was a photo album in somebody’s parlor in the 19th century,” he told ARTnews.
In the 1960s, the photographs started to be sold at flea markets and antique shops, and private collectors began amassing collections. Over the last 15 years, however, museums and institutions have made a push to recover many of these images.
There are major roadblocks. Millions of Civil War images, according to Coddington, are currently in the hands of private collectors and CDVs sell regularly at auctions, as well as on Facebook Marketplace and dealer websites.
Numerous institutions have archives dedicated to the preservation, curation, and research into Black historical photographs, including the Getty Archive, the Gladstone Collection at the Library of Congress, NMAAHC, International Center for Photography’s Daniel Cowin Collection, and the Stony Island Arts Bank, as well as photography collections at colleges, universities, and more than 100 other Black history museums across the US.
However, chronic underfunding of African American museums and historically Black colleges and universities often limits the budgets for this work. In 2019, the operating budget for NMAAHC, arguably the premier African American museum, was $51 million. By comparison, the operating budget for the Museum of Modern Art was over $250 million for the same period. Smaller African American institutions tend to fill out their budgets with “grassroots funding strategies, like potluck fundraisers and renting out space,” according to a 2021 report from the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research organization.
A Rise In Prices Might Make Preservation More Difficult
Meanwhile, the value of CDVs is rising due to increased collector demand, according to Coddington.
“Going into five figures is not unusual,” said Coddington. “Images of African Americans have always commanded higher prices compared to their white counterparts … In recent years, there has been such an explosion in prices.”
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Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston purchased a “Scourged Back” CDV for its collection from Swann Auction Galleries for $8,400. Then, in February, Hindman Auctions sold a McPherson & Oliver “Scourged Back” CDV for $12,500. In April, Los Angeles-based auction house Nate D. Sanders posted a call on its website for collectors to sell their “Scourged Back” CDVs with the company. The call said that the auction house had recently sold one for $40,000. Meanwhile, in an apology posted to Instagram in early December, McFarland noted that he has loaned a photograph of Martin Delaney to the National Portrait Gallery. That image appears to be the same as one that sold at Cowan’s Auction House for $59,375 in 2020.
While McFarland did not note the price increase in his apology, he did acknowledge critics’ discomfort with his ownership of the collection. “My plan was always to donate the photographs to the appropriate institution, in consultation with the community …” he said. “My goal has always been to find the right permanent home and make sure they are accessible, to honor their significance.”
It appears likely however that Emancipation and McFarland’s decision to carry the “Scourged Back” CDV to the premiere will only increase the value of the image, and thus benefit him personally. As Leonard noted on Twitter, McFarland gives no concrete timeline for donating the collection.
When he does donate the work, any increase in value will benefit him for tax purposes, according to certified financial planner Paul Caspersen
The rise in prices will only make the images more valuable and desirable to private collectors, and thus more inaccessible for Black museums, research organizations, and universities with limited acquisition budgets.
“The number of individuals who can afford to put tens of thousands of dollars into a single image, it’s a pretty small group,” Coddington said.
McFarland did not respond to a request for comment.