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The Portraiture of William Bullard: Photographing a Community of Colour

c. 1904 Portrait of the Thomas A. and Margaret Dillon Family. Virginia-born coachman Thomas A. Dillon and his wife, Margaret, a domestic servant and native of Newton, Massachusetts, pose in the parlour of their home at 4 Dewey Street with children Thomas, Margaret, and Mary. A poster on the wall commemorates President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Worcester Agricultural Fair in 1902.

In the pantheon of early 20th-century American photography, William Bullard holds a unique position, distinguished not only by his technical prowess but also by his profound dedication to portraying the lives of people of colour.

In the two decades before World War I, Bullard made over 200 portraits of people of colour in his home town, capturing them at work, in their gardens, and in their living rooms.

1900 Portrait of James J. and Jennie Bradley Johnson Family. James J. Johnson, of Nipmuc, Narragansett, and African American descent, and Jennie Bradley Johnson, a migrant from Charleston, South Carolina, pose with their daughters Jennie and May. James worked as a coachman and belonged to the King David Masonic Lodge. He died soon after this portrait was taken. Jennie later worked as a laundress.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1876, William Bullard was the son of a Civil War veteran and a homemaker. His early years were marked by the untimely death of his father, which plunged his family into financial difficulty. Despite these hardships, Bullard nurtured a burgeoning interest in photography, an art form that was still in its relative infancy. As a young man, he apprenticed with local photographers, honing his skills and developing a keen eye for composition and lighting.

c. 1901 Portrait of Mrs. Louden’s Relative.

Bullard's work, however, was not driven solely by a passion for the art of photography. His decision to focus on people of colour was a conscious one, rooted in a deep-seated belief in equality and social justice. In an era where racial prejudices were rampant, Bullard's camera became a tool for counter-narrative, documenting the dignity and resilience of African American and Native American communities.

c. 1904 Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his Children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice, and Dorothea. A native of Troy, New York, Raymond Schuyler migrated to Worcester in 1887 to work for the Worcester Wire Works and later worked for the Boston and Maine Railroad. Active in All Saints Episcopal Church, the Masons, and Knights of Pythias, Schuyler was the oldest member of the Worcester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People when he died in 1956.

The Subjects of His Lens

Bullard's subjects were predominantly the residents of Worcester's Beaver Brook neighbourhood, an area known for its diverse population. His relationship with these communities was not that of a distant observer; he was a trusted friend and neighbour. This intimate connection allowed him to capture his subjects with an authenticity that is palpable in his images. The trust and mutual respect between Bullard and his subjects are evident in the relaxed and confident expressions that grace his photographs.

c. 1906 Portrait of a Mixed-Race Group, Including a Woman With a Guitar. This group may have been entertainers at an Old Home Days celebration, a popular event at the turn of the century held to commemorate the area’s rural past.

His subjects ranged from prominent community leaders to everyday workers and children. Each portrait is a testament to the individual's unique story and the collective narrative of their community. Bullard’s approach was inclusive, portraying his subjects with the same dignity and attention to detail that he would afford any sitter. This egalitarian approach was radical for its time and provides a stark contrast to the often demeaning or exploitative depictions of people of colour in contemporary media.

The glass negatives that Bullard left behind gathered dust until a few years ago, when Frank Morrill, the steward of the collection, started collaborating with students at Clark University to research the lives of the portrait sitters, using Bullard’s logbook to link faces to names.

Over 80 percent of the sitters were identified, making the Bullard collection an unusually cohesive and robust photographic record of a community of colour at the start of the 20th century.

1901 Portrait of Hattie, James Harold, and Clarence Ward. Hattie, Louis, Clarence, and James Harold Ward were the children of Mary Elizabeth Ward Wilson, a migrant from New Bern. James Harold, better known as “Boot,” eventually became a jazz drummer. Given the moniker “Hooks,” Clarence became the proprietor of a restaurant. Hattie worked as an assistant in a dentist’s office.

Meeting His Subjects

Bullard's method of engaging with his subjects was as important as the images he produced. He often spent considerable time getting to know the individuals and families he photographed, sometimes attending their social gatherings and community events. This immersion within the community allowed him to create portraits that were not only visually striking but also rich in context and meaning.

1900 Portrait of Richard G. Brown. Richard G. Brown was born in Virginia and worked as a labourer in a Worcester broom factory. In 1904, he opened a restaurant, Richard G. Brown & Co.

Years of Activity: 1897-1917

Bullard's most prolific period of photographing people of colour spanned two decades, from 1897 to 1917. These years were a time of significant social change and challenge for African American and Native American communities in the United States. The end of the 19th century and the early 20th century saw the entrenchment of Jim Crow laws and the continued displacement of Native American tribes, creating an environment of adversity that Bullard's work subtly but powerfully countered.

1901 Portrait of Martha (Patsy) Perkins.

His images from this period document everyday life, capturing moments of normalcy and joy amid the broader context of social struggle. Bullard's portraits from these years are particularly valuable for their historical and cultural insights, providing a visual record of communities often overlooked or misrepresented in other historical documents.

c. 1901 Portrait of Eighteen Girls and Boys at Sunday School. These girls and boys are probably Sunday School students from Bethel AME Church, dressed in black and white for the communion service held once a month, a tradition that continues to this day.

c. 1912 Portrait of Louise and Martha Harra. Fondly remembered by many present-day residents of Worcester, “Weezy” and “Marty” were the children of Herbert and Mary E. Price Harra and resided for many years on Mason Street, where Bullard took this photograph.

At the time, Bullard's photographs were primarily shared within the local community and through modest exhibitions. The broader art world, steeped in Eurocentric ideals, largely overlooked his work. However, within the communities he photographed, Bullard's images were cherished. They were treasured family heirlooms, often displayed in homes as symbols of pride and identity.

c. 1902 Portrait of Betty and Willis Coles. Posing on the porch of their home on Park Avenue, these Virginia migrants arrived in Massachusetts in the 1890s. Willis, who was a day labourer when this portrait was made, later became a pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts.

It is only in recent years that Bullard's work has received the recognition it so richly deserves. Contemporary scholars and art historians have lauded his work for its technical excellence and its pioneering role in documenting African American and Native American life with dignity and respect. His portraits are now considered invaluable cultural artefacts, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of early 20th-century communities of colour.

1900 Portrait of Alonzo Shannon and George Ringels.

c. 1912 Portrait of Mary E. Price Harra.

c. 1904 Portrait of Boy Sitting on Grass.

c. 1902 Portrait of Claude Clark on a Rocking Horse.

1901 Portrait of Anna Lovett Latham’s Mother

c. 1908 Portrait of Woman in Confirmation Attire.

c. 1901 Portrait of Susie Idella Morris and Harry Clinton Morris. Susie and Harry Morris were the children of barber Sandy Morris, a migrant from New Orleans, and Susie Arkless Morris, of Narragansett descent. They were the great-great-grandchildren of Sampson Hazard, a Revolutionary War veteran.

c. 1902 Portrait of Ralph Mendis. Ralph Mendis was born in 1897 and is seen here at about age five. His mother, Frances, was part of the New Bern, North Carolina, migration to Worcester. His father was one of a handful of Jamaican immigrants who resided in the city.

c. 1902 Portrait of Zenobia Clark. Claude and Zenobia Clark were the children of barber Joseph C. Clark, a migrant from South Carolina, and Laurie Harden Clark, born in Georgia.

c. 1901 Portrait of Isaac (Ike) Perkins Wearing a Top Hat. Ike Perkins was a member of the Improved Benevolent Order of Elks of the World and posed for Bullard informal wear, worn by Elks for special ceremonies. Ike died in 1920 during a flu pandemic.

c. 1900 Portrait of David T. Oswell with His Viola. David Oswell, born in Boston, emigrated from St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, to Worcester in 1877. Oswell taught violin and guitar to prominent white families, writing musical scores performed throughout the city.

c. 1905 Portrait of Waiters at Green Hill during Training for the Wellington Rifles.

c. 1903 Portrait of Thomas A. Dillon.

1900 Portrait of Rose Mabel (May) Johnson.

c. 1902 Portrait of Edward Perkins in His Garden. Camden migrant Edward Perkins poses in his lush garden of collard greens in the Beaver Brook neighbourhood, demonstrating the literal transplantation of Southern culture to the North.

1907 Portrait of Members of the Worcester Veterans Firemen’s Association. This photograph was likely taken at a firemen’s muster in Worcester’s Elm Park. Musters usually lasted two days, attracting the attendance of thousands and consisting of skill based competitions between local and visiting fire companies.



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