Little Known Black History Fact: Jules Lion

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  • Jules Lion was a free black photographer from France that entered New Orleans around the late 1830’s. Although he started as a lithographer, he introduced a special type of portrait that was new to the United States called Daguerrean photography. This was the first type of photography in the country before more advanced exposures were created. Because this was a new picture-taking process from overseas, some believe Lion’s work gave birth to photography in the United States, especially among blacks. He was one of the first blacks to be known as a Daguerrean photographer, which spread to other budding black photographers quickly (like James Presley Ball) and throughout the country.

    Lion’s story in New Orleans began in the late 1830’s as a lithographer, but around 1837, he was driven back to France for a year with the declining economy to sharpen his photography skills under the method of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre – the originator of the Daguerrean method.

    He returned to New Orleans and photographed the majestic views of the city. After proving his level of work by photographing landmarks in New Orleans, the prize-winning photographer was in demand by notables such as President Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren for his work. The New Orleans Bee, a local bilingual newspaper, hired Lion to take pictures for the publication. Both he and his brother (who were of mixed heritage) found success in Louisiana. His brother, Achille, was a dentist and both used their money to invest in real estate and retail goods.

    Lion’s work could be found in the prestigious St. Charles Museum. His success was inevitable in the city of New Orleans, but as the cost of equipment increased from growing competition, Lion extended his search of prominent subjects to the rest of Louisiana and its people. His path eventually led to a teaching career and a return to his work as a lithographer. During the Civil War, Lion began lithographs of Confederate Sheet music covers. He did this until his death in January 1866.

    Over a period of twenty years, Lion had begun a project of lithographic collection to publish into a book. Due to lack of funding, the project was never finished.

    Despite the unfinished book, his work is revered in a contemporary collection. Lion is now among a new exhibition of artwork curated by historian Deborah Willis called "Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography." It is the largest exhibit of black photographers in the history of exhibits, featuring over 300 images by photographers of African descent. The work is compiled into three sectors: The First 100 years: 1842-1942; Art and Activism; and A History Deconstructed.
     

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