Denver Photographer J. C. Swan

To celebrate Black History Month, this post is illustrated with a portrait of an unidentified Black woman made in a Denver studio by White photographer, J. C. Swan.  Only a few Black photographers worked in Colorado, and information about them is very limited.  An earlier post discussed one of them,  John Green.  As a follow-up to that post, Green’s best-known photograph, a portrait of Black cowboy, Isam Dart, is held by the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig.

Justus Crandall “J. C.” Swan was born in 1849 to Samuel Prentice Swan and Calista Elnora Crandall Swan in Lincklaen, New York. Justus was the oldest of four children. Samuel Swan worked as a wagon maker. According to the 1870 federal census, the family lived on a farm in Frederick County, Virginia.   In 1871,  Justus settled in Missouri. On January 20, 1875, he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Ann Goodman-Bateman in Nevada, Missouri.

The earliest mention of Swan’s photographic career appears in an advertisement in the January 13, 1876, Nevada Ledger (Nevada, MO) for his studio over Roberts & Tyler’s hardware store. In 1877, the Swans moved to Delavan, Illinois, where J. C. Swan was the senior partner in the firm of Swan & Maltby. Mrs. Swan worked as a milliner. The couple’s first child, Justine, was born in Delavan.

The Swan family is not listed in the 1880 federal census and J. C. Swan is not mentioned in the press until they moved back to Missouri in the spring of 1886. At that time, his stereoviews of Zodiac Springs (Vernon County, MO), made under the firm name Swan & Taylor were praised by the press. A month later the firm purchased the interests of  J. H. Harter’s Nevada, MO studio in the Norman Building at West Side Square. In Nevada, Swan photographed local events, including a Republican rally held in September 1888 and the local artesian well. Swan remained in Nevada through 1892.

He traveled to Texas, spending several months looking for job opportunities. The family moved to the Austin area in December 1892. By 1896 he operated a photocopying service in Shepherd, Texas.

J. C. Swan photo
Justus C. Swan, photographer. Full-length portrait of an unidentified woman, circa 1897. Silver and photographic gelatin on cabinet card mount. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of JoAnn Oxley Foster.

In 1897, the Swans changed their residence once again, now traveling north to Denver, Colorado where he promoted himself as a portrait and landscape photographer. He stayed in the city for eight years, working mainly as a photographer, but Denver city directories list him as a carpenter in 1901 and 1903. In April 1905 the Swans settled in Nucla, a small, secluded town in Colorado’s southwest mountains. He continued his photographic work, while his wife ran a hotel. Justus C. Swan died on May 3, 1928, at 78 years old. He is buried at Nucla Cemetery.

Thank you to Beverly Brannan, former Curator of Photography, Library of Congress, for proofreading this post.