A black family’s photo album
  • 1917 Army camp photo by Henry M. Beach
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    Auction Finds

    Endearing photo of an old man & his accordion

    The duct tape was what snagged me. I had seen the worn and lined face of the elderly black man in the black and white photo, gazed upon it momentarily, dropped it back on the auction table with the other two and moved on.

    Then it came up for sale, and I saw it: Duct tape on the old man’s accordion. He had put strips of tape on the bellows to keep the instrument from falling apart as he played. It told me loads about the man – what he had, what he didn’t have, how he survived and how he had used cheap duct tape to not only hold his accordion together but perhaps his life.

    I could tell from his clothes that he didn’t have much than that old accordion, but he wanted to present himself well (he wore a dark tie with what looked like a hat pin at the knot). His smile portrayed a big heart that loved music. He was a man who didn’t give up because he had tears in his life; he patched them up and kept going. I saw what the photographer saw when he aimed his camera at this street musician in a snapshot that revealed much.

    Elderly African American accordion player

    An up-close view of the photo of an elderly African American accordion player.

    The old man had attached a photo of himself with the accordion to the front of the instrument. It showed him on what looked like a street and not in an open field where this photo seemed to have been taken.

    As soon as I saw the tattered and taped accordion, I decided that I wanted the photo. I had gone past it before because it was so filthy (as if the other items at the auction were any cleaner). The mat was fingerprint dirty, the result of too many smudgy hands touching it and dust accumulating on it. There were a few water spots on the mat and a small one on the photo itself, and nicks at the corner edges.

    The photo was one of three items in the lot. The other was a black and white photo of a boy, along with a reproduction of a 19th-century antique print of a British fox hunt. That one seemed so out of place among the 20th-century photos that I assumed an auction-house staffer had placed it there because no suitable lot could be found for it.

    Elderly black accordion player

    A full view of the elderly accordion player. The photo is not clearly signed.

    It was a 19th-century reproduction titled “The Meet” from “Herring’s Fox-Hunting Scenes,” originally painted by John Frederick Herring Sr., one of England’s greatest sporting and animal painters. The painting was from a series of four that showed a fox hunt from beginning to end, and was engraved by John Harris in 1867. This was apparently a reproduction of Harris’ engraving.

    The two black and whites were the second grouping I’d come across in the past month or so. At another auction house, the remains of a man’s work as a professional wedding photographer and amateur landscape photographer were up for sale. There were several hefty boxes of wedding photos dating back to the 1950s of African American couples on the cusp of a new life together.

    I went through the box but didn’t nibble at a bid because I had no idea what I’d do with other people’s wedding photos. And I’m sure that’s why his family tossed them, too. I wasn’t around when they sold, but I’m sure they did and will probably end up on eBay or at a flea market.

    Last year, I found another set of black and whites from the 1950s. One was a photo of two little boys walking arm-over-shoulder through a park that I found so special that I decided to take them home.

    Photo of boy in streetlight

    Photo of a boy under a streetlight by Michael Smith, 1966.

     At this auction, the two black and white photos of the old man and boy looked professional, not at all amateurish, and they were mounted on the dingy mats. When I first approached the table, I was immediately drawn to them. They had been shot by two different photographers who wanted to show the character in their subjects’ faces. The photograph of the old man’s face was so well executed that I focused on that image, indifferent to the instrument in his lap.

    The photo had no date or title, and the photographer’s penciled signature was not clear. The signature seemed to be M. Breese or M. Breesi. I’ve come across so many illegible signatures on paintings at auction that I’ve gotten better at deciphering them. But not this one.

    The other photo had a title and signature on the back: “Boy in Stree light (the “t” was missing),” Michael Smith 1966. Although legible, the name was so common that it was just as hard trying to find out more about him on the web. This photographer had opted for an out-of-focus shot, with the light changing the boy’s pupils to small white circles and his facing seeming to rise out of the darkness.

    During my research of the old man’s photographer on the web, I came across a question from someone wanting to know if black people could play the accordion. It sounded like a dumb question to me, because I figured if we could play any other instrument we surely can play this one – as several other people pointed out.

    Signatures of photographers of old man and boy

    At left, the signature of the old man's photographer; at right, the signature of the boy's photographer.

    African Americans have been playing the accordion since slavery, where it was used at dances (it was called a “jammer” or “windjammer”), and the instrument was popular among blacks during Reconstruction. The accordion runs as far back and deep in Creole music, with photos and references to blacks also playing the instrument in Louisiana.

    By the dawn of the 20th century, the accordion was the instrument for laying on the blues in places like Mississippi. Some well-known players included Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Clifton Chenier (considered the father of Zydeco music), who was influenced by another great Louisiana accordion player Amede Ardoin. Muddy Waters was said to have learned to play his grandmother’s accordion, but moved on to the guitar.

    As I later stood looking at the old man’s photo, another auction-goer approached and tried to reassemble the man’s life through the military hat he wore. He guessed that the old guy may have been a soldier (or he could’ve just found the hat).

    The man was sitting on a metal chair in what looked like a barren field or open park. In the background was an old stove and chimney stack with thick smoke coming out of it. Who was he and who photographed him?

    The Meet by John Frederick Herring

    A reproduction of an engraving of "The Meet" by John Frederick Herring Sr.


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