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JOHN ATHILL FRITH (1835-1907) was a native-born Bermudian and the son of freed slaves who went on to become Bermuda’s first black commercial photographer and possibly the sole black photographer to be working on the island in the nineteenth century. Moreover, for most of his career, up until the turn of the twentieth century, he was the only professional photographer employing his craft in the town and parish of St. George’s.

Curiosity about Frith in Bermuda’s archival and artistic communities was first aroused in the summer of 1999, when Dr. David Boxer of the Jamaican National Gallery inquired about an old photograph with Frith’s imprint on the back which he had recently acquired. Nan Godet of the Bermuda Archives initiated a round of research (in conjunction with the Bermuda National Gallery) which established that Frith had been born to freed slaves and that he was the island’s first black professional photographer. It was also determined that he seemed to have worked in Jamaica and possibly even in Cuba before setting up business in Bermuda. But nothing was known about his formative years and little of his early adulthood, and thus additional research was undertaken, particularly in an effort to ascertain where he had learned photography, whether he had simultaneously run studios in both Jamaica and Bermuda, and what the reasons were for his appearance in Cuba, where slavery still existed, prior to his return to Bermuda in 1866. Though many issues pertaining to Frith’s family history were unraveled, none of these particular questions were definitively answered, and a cloud of mystery still enshrouds a portion of his biographical record. 

Historical knowledge of John Athill Frith’s family begins with the baptismal records of his two half-siblings, Thomas Henry Frith and Lucy Jane Frith, in 1830 and 1831, respectively. Thomas Frith Sr., a cabinetmaker, and Princess Outerbridge, both slaves of Mary Hinson Folger of St. George’s, are listed as the parents. By January 1834, six months before formal emancipation of all slaves in Bermuda, Thomas Sr. and Thomas Henry are no longer listed on the registry of slaves, though Princess Outerbridge and Lucy Jane Frith are still listed. Three months after emancipation, in November 1834, Thomas Sr. married Rebecca Atkinson. Over the next 20 years, Thomas and Rebecca had 14 children; John Athill was the oldest, baptized on August 2, 1835, exactly a year following emancipation. Between 1850 and 1853, Thomas and Rebecca’s six youngest children died; Rebecca passed away in 1854, at the age of 42.

John Athill Frith announced the opening of his photography “salon” on January 16, 1866, in an edition of the Royal Gazette. His studio, according to the Bermuda Almanac, was located on Water Street, in a building which his father had purchased a short time before, perhaps specifically for his son’s usage. (His father, one of the first blacks in Bermuda to own property, had previously purchased a home in St. George’s.) Frith advertised the production and sale of cartes de visite, a small photograph (usually a portrait) consisting of a thin print mounted on a thicker, 4 x 2-1/2 inch card; the process, patented by French photographer Andre Disderi (1819-1899) in 1854, involved taking a number of photographs, usually eight, on one plate, thereby reducing production costs. In many instances these “photographic calling cards” replaced the standard calling card, substituting an engraved name with a photograph. (During the 1850s, it was recognized custom to present one’s calling card at the time of a social visit.) This new, relatively inexpensive invention became so popular it was known as “cardomania,” and it spread throughout Europe and then quickly to America and the rest of the world. By 1863, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write: “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the greenbacks of civilization.” In England, sales of cartes de visite ran in the hundreds of millions annually. (Queen Victoria compiled more than a hundred albums of cartes, featuring royalty and others of social prominence.) The American Civil War gave the format enormous momentum as soldiers and their families posed for cartes before being separated by war - or death. The desire for the cards resulted in a number of entrepreneurial European photographers reportedly earning $50,000 a year selling them; Frith was known to charge ten shillings for half a dozen cards, a price 40% above current British prices at the time, reflecting the cost of importing the materials as well as building in a healthy profit margin. The cards were produced by employing what was known as the albumen process (a method used by Frith for the production of all his photographs). The albumen process, invented in France in 1847 by Louis Desire Blanquant-Evrard (1802-1872), was the first commercially exploitable way to produce a photographic print on a paper base from a negative, and was the most popular photographic printing process of the nineteenth century (though it hasn’t been used for nearly a hundred years, having long ago been replaced by more advanced technology). It was a time-consuming and difficult medium within which to work, as compared to modern photography, and its practitioners were generally well-trained professionals with a working knowledge of chemistry (With the exception of a few technically gifted and wealthy hobbyists, there were no amateur photographers at this time.) The process involved coating a piece of paper with albumen (egg white) and salt, then dried and dropped in a solution of silver nitrate and water. Because the resulting image emerged as a direct result of the exposure to light, the albumen print may be said to have been a printed rather than a developed photograph. In his advertising, Frith also mentioned that he was able to produce “ferrotypes” (tintypes), a photograph embedded on a thin sheet of metal that could be processed immediately after being exposed, producing an early version of the “instant photo” used mainly by beach photographers and other itinerant professionals. (For Frith’s purposes, they were to be used mainly for lockets.) He also produced “ambrotypes,” which were similar to tintypes but used glass instead of metal. 

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Educated speculation currently presumes that Frith learned his trade in Jamaica, and for a time ran a studio there. A carte de visite exists that says “J.A. Frith, photographer, Kingston, Jamaica” with “St. George’s Bermuda” written as an addendum, along with another one in which the addendum is printed, the implication being that he ran an established studio in Jamaica before returning to Bermuda. It has even been speculated that he ran both studios simultaneously for a time. Another carte de visite has an imprint “John Frith, St. George’s Bermuda, formally Calle de las Enramada St. Jago de Cuba” on the back. In his advertising he stated that he was late of “Santiago de Cuba,” a city on Cuba’s south coast, and that he had been accorded “Spanish Royal Privilege,” implying that he was regarded as a competent professional in the Spanish Caribbean. It is not known whether he actually operated a studio in Santiago de Cuba, and none of his identifying imprints mention him being a photographer in Cuba. Reinforcing the Cuba connection, though, Frith named his house in Wellington, St. George’s, “Cuba Lodge.” 

Frith is known to have produced studio portraits, landscapes, and scenes for both black and white clients, and, according to information gleaned from the St. George’s Historical Society, was a popular portrait photographer with well-to-do white families. Many of the same props appear in his studio portraits despite several announcements over the years that he had completely refurbished his studio. He advertised regularly in the Royal Gazette, occasionally giving notice that he was leaving the island for a period of time or had returned and reopened his studio. Unlike other photographers working on the island, he never diversified into selling anything other than frames and albums from his studio. (Shoes seem to have been a popular sideline for several of the photographers with studios in Hamilton.)

In 1867, a year after he opened his studio, Frith solicited orders in the Royal Gazette for “A complete set of 50 different views from Ireland Island to St. David’s.” Apparently, this proved to be a more difficult job than he originally anticipated, and by January of the following year he placed apologies in the Gazette for the delay in filling orders. Despite the difficulties, the project afforded him a stock of landscape negatives, and for the remainder of his career he advertised “Views of Bermudian Scenery.” In 1871 Frith submitted several of these landscapes to the National Photography Exhibition in Cleveland, Ohio, where his work received favorable reviews. Always innovative in running his business, he formed an association with the British artist Edward James (1820-1877), photographing James’ paintings of local current events (such as the opening of the causeway in 1871) and then creating prints that James would hand-color, ultimately producing color multiples to increase sales. Like James, Frith sought to portray local news events, producing a series of prints of the “welcoming arches” created specifically for the 1883 visit to St. George’s of H.R.H. Princess Louise.

In 1870, several months after the death of his father, Frith married Laura Bruce in Washington, D.C. In the 1870 Washington census, she is listed as “mulatto,” age 22, a seamstress, living at home with her parents. She moved to Bermuda with her husband, who at the time was recorded as owning three cottages in Wellington, St. George’s, and as being active in town affairs. As a freeholder, Frith was on the list for jury duty as early as 1868, and was elected to the parish vestry in 1883, remaining a member until his death in 1907. To date, research indicates that as far as the progeny of Thomas Frith Sr. and Rebecca Frith are concerned, only John Athill and his sister Mary Theresa ever married; John Athill and his wife never bore children, but Mary Ann Theresa, who married black businessman Aubrey J.A. Richardson (a part-owner of the Globe Hotel) in 1865, had two children, Emma and Ebenezer, Thomas Sr. and Rebecca’s only known grandchildren. None of their living descendants, should they indeed exist, have to date been located. 

Late in his career, Frith devised a method for taking night-time photographs, advertising himself as the “Inventor of Landscape Photography by Moonlight.” His associate Edward James, who executed a series of night-time paintings, may have influenced him to attempt this process, or perhaps it was Frith who influenced James. Regardless of the circumstances behind its inception, this method, according to many observers of Frith’s known output, resulted in some of his most beautiful work. In an 1887 diary of a visit to the island, Mary Lothrop Peabody describes visiting Frith’s studio in St. George’s and purchasing two of his moonlight photographs: “We made a visit to the photographer, John A. Frith, who seemed to be quite a character in his way . . . and evidently an enthusiast in his profession, or rather trade. He had invented a process of taking photographs by moonlight and we got a few impressions from him. His process is at present a secret, but he intends to send the account to the Photographers Convention in Chicago next August, when he hopes to get the gold medal of the Society.” Whether or not Frith followed through on his stated intent to submit a portion of his work to the Convention remains unknown. 

By the time of his death in 1907, Frith was a substantial landowner in St. George’s. In addition to the property he acquired during his lifetime (one of his holdings was a house he purchased from his brother-in-law), Frith inherited a large share of his father’s property as well. The value of his holdings in the 1880s was assessed at 1500 pounds, as compared to, for example, Hezekiah Frith of Warwick, whose estate during the same period was assessed at 1800 pounds.

Despite the dearth of information about his early life, John Athill Frith, thanks in large part to the research and scholarship undertaken by the Bermuda Archives and the Bermuda National Gallery, has in recent years taken his rightful place of prominence not just in the world of Bermudian art, but in the cultural and social narrative of the island as well. His work is now firmly ensconced in the permanent collections of The Bermuda National Gallery and the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art; additionally, his photographs were featured in a Fall, 2005 exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery, and a representative sampling of his oeuvre was publicly displayed in a 2013 exhibition at the Masterworks Museum, Drawing with Light. Frith’s appearance on the webpage 4 Centuries: Evolving Art (jointly sponsored by the Bermuda National Gallery and the Bermuda National Trust), in which his ca. 1870 photograph View of the Clock Tower, Dockyard is one of the selected works on display, shows just how far this son of freed slaves has come in the eyes of those who bear witness to history.

Written July 2016 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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