Farley, James Conway

views updated

James Conway Farley


James Conway Farley is recognized as the first African American photographer. Photography became popular in the 1840s, but very few African Americans were involved in the early years of its introduction to the public. Farley overcame adversity and discrimination to master the photographic process and become a successful businessman.

James Farley was the son of slaves in Prince Edward County, Virginia, born on August 10, 1854. In 1861, after the death of his father, his mother moved with the young Farley to Richmond, Virginia. In order to support the family financially, Farley's mother worked as a storeroom keeper at the Columbia Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Early on Farley worked to help support the family as well. He was an assistant in making candles by tying strings and getting the candle molds ready for the hot grease. At night, Farley would visit an old cook who taught him how to read and write. The cook used an old linen book to help Farley become literate. He was lucky enough to be given a chance to attend a public school for three years to further his education. Farley struggled to continue his education and support the family financially. He became an apprentice to learn the trade of a baker, but he worked only briefly. In 1872, he was employed in the chemical department of the photographic business of C. R. Rees and Company in downtown Richmond.

Finds His Niche

Through hard work, Farley became familiar with the photographic process. In May 1875, he became an operator for the G. W. Davis Photographic Gallery on Broad Street in Richmond. At this time, the four white men employed as operators at the gallery protested the employment of Farley because he was African American and insisted they would not work if Farley's employment continued. Mr. Davis, the proprietor of the gallery, tried to sort out the real reason for their disapproval. The men claimed that Farley was disagreeable. When confronted with the document containing the complaint, Farley expressed his appreciation for Mr. Davis, whom he did not want to trouble. Then Davis stunned Farley by telling him that he had fired the white operators.

This benevolent act inspired Farley to use this opportunity to learn all he could about the photographic process and become a first-class operator. Together, Davis and Farley improved the business, and Davis was able to establish a gallery that was less expensive. Over the next four years, Farley continued to excel in the photographic business. At one time, Farley was said to have produced more photographs in one day than were produced in any other gallery in the southern states.

Farley's work was displayed at the 1884 Colored Industrial Fair held in Richmond. He received first prize. His work was also displayed at the 1885 World's Exposition in New Orleans. There he received numerous compliments and was awarded a premium for his achievements.


Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on August 10
Moves, along with his mother, to Richmond, Virginia
Begins employment at C. R. Rees and Company
Makes photographs for the G. W. Davis Photographic Gallery
Marries Rebecca P. Robinson on December 10
Joins the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia
Serves as operator of the G. W. Davis Photographic Gallery
Wins first prize for his exhibit at the Colored Industrial Fair
Wins a premium at the New Orleans World Exposition
Opens his studio, the Jefferson Fine Arts Gallery
Dies in Richmond, Virginia

In 1895, Farley started his own photography studio, the Jefferson Fine Arts Gallery. His gallery specialized in taking the photos of individuals and groups and converting them into greeting cards. Because of the excellent work that Farley produced, he was sought after by whites and African Americans.

Farley married Rebecca P. Robinson on December 10, 1876. Their union produced seven daughters. His accomplishments afforded them a comfortable life, and he continued to be respected by others in his profession. In 1910, Farley died in Richmond, Virginia. Today little evidence remains of his amazing work. The Valentine Museum in Richmond displayed one of his photographs until 1982. A single photograph remains as a testimony to his genius and skill.



"James C. Farley." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

Simmons, William J. Men of Mark. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970.


Richings, G. F. Evidence of Progress Among Colored People: Electronic Edition. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/richings/richings.html (Accessed 2 February 2006).

                                        Connie Mack