In the mid-1970s in the attic of an old estate in Lincioln Massachusetts, I discovered a cache of some 2000 photographs taken by the 19th century ornithologist William Brewster. I began researching the images and quite by accident learned that many of the photographs, in fact the best ones of the lot, were taken by Brewster's African American manservant, Robert A. Gilbert. That discovery led me on a twenty year search to find out more about Gilbert, the end result of which was publication of the book, Looking for Mr. Gilbert (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005)
Although born in poverty in the rural south shortly after the Civil War, Gilbert experienced many successes in life. After working for Brewster, he made a great deal of money in the shoe polish business, and in the mid to late 1920s spent at least two years in Paris, where he hob-nobbed with other well-known American expatriates. Among other things he has a walk-on part in F. Scott Fitzgerald's book Tender is the Night. Through his work with William Brewster, Gilbert worked for over 25 years as an associate at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he was renowned for his multiple talents. But perhaps his most lasting success is his least known. Although he shared many photographic expeditions with William Brewster, Gilbert was never recognized for his work as a photographer. He was, in effect, the first African American Landscape photographer.
Included here are a few of his photographs, most taken between 1898 and 1910.
John Hanson Mitchell