Editor’s Note: Last year, we acquired the Tom Pohrt Photograph Collection, an invaluable collection of photographic images of Cuba in the 19th and 20th century. With funding from The Goizueta Foundation, we digitized the entire collection, which includes albumen prints, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and stereographs. We are excited to announce that it the digital collection is now available for online viewing.
Tom Pohrt, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is an author and illustrator of children’s books. He is also a collector of Cuban photographs, documents, and memorabilia. We asked him to write a guest article about his photograph collection.
The motivation behind my collecting historic photographs of Cuba began out of simple curiosity. I wanted to know more of Cuban history and its people.
A longer answer to this might come from having parents who instilled in me a sense of curiosity and the value of knowledge for its own sake. My father was a life long collector of American Indian artifacts. The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody Wyoming are now home to this collection. The exposure growing up around my fathers passion in this aspect of American history had a rich and profound effect on me.
As an artist I have always had a great love of the visual arts, including photography. About twelve years ago I stumbled across and purchased some photographic studio portraits of Havana residents, taken in the early 20th century. I was taken by these images and wanted to know more of their story.
Like many of my generation I grew up reading and hearing of Cuba during the years of the Cold War. I had a passing knowledge of the “Spanish American War” but that was the embarrassingly limited extent of what I knew of Cuba. Eleven years ago I had my first opportunity to travel to the island, to see and explore some of its history first hand. It left a lasting impression and since I have returned many times.
This collection was put together by purchases made from other collectors and dealers from around the world. Books and photographs were also found in the odd rare book and antique shop. Early on I decided to let the photographs I was finding direct the focus of my collecting. Soon I found that part of the strength of this collection lay in the mid 19th century photographs I was coming across. As a comprehensive history of early photography in Cuba has yet to be written I felt this period demanded special attention.
These rare images represent a significant collection of mid 19th century photography of Cuba. Aesthetically beautiful they are also of great importance as historical documents.
There are examples here of Cuban studio photographers as well as American itinerant photographers.
Examples of the American Civil War photographer George Barnard, whose Cuban stereo-view’s represent the earliest known images of slavery on the island, form part of this material. His views of Havana also give us a glimpse of life at the time.
There are 71 photographs from an album, taken between 1859 and the early 1860’s, documenting lighthouses from around the island, with views of Havana and outdoor views taken along the islands northern coastline. While the photographer remains unknown there is evidence that these may have been taken by photographers (most likely Cuban) working for Charles DeForest Fredricks. C.D. Fredricks & Co. was one of the premier photographic studio’s in Havana in the mid 19th century.
With the wealth of historic material at the Cuban Heritage Collection I felt this was the natural home for this material. I was also greatly impressed by the CHC Digital Collections. This service provides easy access both to scholars and to the general public.