I could not tell she was African-American in looking at the negative. When I scanned it as viewed her as a positive print, chills went through me. This was the most stunning portrait photograph I have ever seen. And I just could not take my eyes off of her. There was so much within that photograph. Her face was powerful and determined and it told me that she was someone with a story to tell, she spoke to me then and has continued to speak to me every time I see her photograph.
These are the words of daguerreotype collector Stephen Restelli, who owns the images that accompany this blog post. I first found them on a Facebook page (Civil War Faces) devoted to such images and contacted him about the “Susie” portrait. He graciously responded.
Son of two antique dealers, Steve became interested in old photographs and ephemera at an early age. After all, one could buy boxes of such things for a dollar or less back “in the day,” and it was money well spent to keep young Steve busy while his parents looked over furniture and decorative items. As he got older, he began to buy cased photographs. Although his father did not understand why he wanted images of folks he never knew, for young Steve, “it was that very moment or window in time when these people’s expressions and clothing was very expressive.”
He soon acquired an Epson Perfection photographic scanner and enlarged his personal collection to include images from the Fleer bankruptcy. He still has about 6,500 baseball card images in his collection, but his main interest is in the images of the 19thcentury:
I thought I would try and find some old negatives to see what I could pull from these digitally. To me this seemed like there might be some really amazing historical finds and digital detail that could be pulled from old, discarded glass plates. What I found was that there were still a lot of these long-forgotten negatives that no one really wanted. Antique dealers would buy out estates, and not too many people wanted them or knew what to do with them. As I began to work with these negatives, I would crop from them what I felt was desirable. I learned enough from Photoshop to correct exposures, repair defects and restore these digitally.
Mr. Restelli’s relationship with Susie King Taylor began by accident. He bid in an online auction for a group of seven large (8” x 10”) glass negatives. They were not listed individually and were difficult to see, but it was possible to make out a photographer in his studio as being one of them. Mr. Restelli decided to bid on the lot, which also included some hands, a bouquet of flowers, people sitting at a table, and a woman in full skirts sitting on a chair. He won the auction, and when the negatives arrived, he scanned them into positive prints. He was relatively pleased with his purchase, but when he scanned and printed the photograph of the woman in the chair, he realized he was in possession of a real treasure:
There really are no words to describe how a work of art can just take hold of you and never let go. I knew she had to be important, because she had completely overwhelmed me, and how many photographs can do this to the viewer? I cropped and scanned the details of her hands as the detail in the negative even as the detail was so very, very crisp. I could see she had working hands, even a slightly broken finger nail. Her dress was so vivid, I could see the stitching of the cloth. I had never seen such an amazing photograph.
What appealed to Stephen Restelli was exactly what I had seen when he posted his work on Facebook. I had the advantage of knowing who I was looking at, but when I interviewed Mr. Restelli, he had his own story. He knew the photographer, but not the subject. The image was taken by Samuel Willard Bridgham, who served on the board of the U. S. Sanitary Commission during the war. Photography became his hobby later in life. Restelli knew the woman had to be someone of importance due to the fact that her photograph had even been taken, much less in such a large format. The time period was about the 1880s, so the woman would have definitely been alive during the Civil War, perhaps even enslaved.
In her photograph, she is wearing a military bodice, so Restelli assumed there might be some sort of military connection, perhaps even a medical one due to Bridgham’s work with the Sanitary Commission. Restelli guessed her age to be in her 40s in the portrait, and her distinctive image burned itself into his memory. He did not see her visage in any other format until 2018 when he was looking at Reminiscences of My Life, Ms. King Taylor’s diary published also as Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs. Suddenly the haunting face had a name to go with it—Susie Taylor King. Restelli’s mystery was solved.
Stephen Restelli has many other artifacts and images of Samuel Willard Bridgham. One of the most interesting is a Tiffany silver tray given to Bridgham by his wife as an anniversary gift in 1894. Still, it is the image of a once-nameless former slave that is one of his greatest treasures. From Bridgham’s original, Mr. Restelli has created a moving photo essay of this African American Union nurse. He has isolated her hands—hands that cared for others with tenderness and grace—and her beautiful, aristocratic face so that others might also see the strength and integrity therein.
For this, we thank you.