Cabinet Card Portraits of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Ira F. Collins, photographer.
Cabinet Card Portraits of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
Cabinet Card Portraits of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
Cabinet Card Portraits of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Earliest Known Photo of Disability and Civil Rights Activist Helen Keller

Cabinet Card Portraits of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Notes: Possibly the earliest surviving image of Helen Keller (1880–1968), taken in August 1887, when she was seven years old, about five months after Anne Sullivan (1866–1936) became her teacher; together with a second photograph of Sullivan taken about the same time.

The image of Keller shows her sitting in a low and ornate chair, dressed in white, with a small white dog on her lap. Her face is in right profile. The floor is covered with a decorative carpet and the walls behind her have trompe l'oeil decoration, suggesting a studio setting as the Keller house was rather small, with just four rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The portrait of Sullivan is a head-and-shoulders shot, with her face in left profile.

As a toddler, Keller contracted an unknown disease, possibly scarlet fever, which left her deaf and blind. In 1886, her parents took her to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, which led them to Sullivan, a 20-year-old Perkins graduate who had regained some of her sight after operations. Sullivan was a friend of Laura Bridgman, a woman with deafblindness who lived at the institute and who communicated through the manual alphabet, which Sullivan learned.

Sullivan (later Anne Macy, following her marriage in 1905) moved to Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887, and became Keller's teacher and then companion for fifty years. These photographs were taken during the summer of that year, when Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan began receiving national press coverage, helped no doubt because her father was a newspaper editor.

Keller and Sullivan became world famous and their relationship was cemented in the American popular imagination through the play and later the film about them, The Miracle Worker. Keller spent her entire adult life campaigning for social justice and raised funds for the deaf and blind. In 1920, she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. She wrote many books, including the bestselling The Story of My Life. Despite being a Socialist, Keller appeared on the back of the Alabama state quarter.

** The Photographer **
Ira Collins was the leading photographer in the region, with a studio in Huntsville, Alabama, about 70 miles from Keller's childhood home. He is known to have taken several photographs of Keller and probably sold copies from his storefront.

** Other Early Portraits of Helen Keller **
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has a damaged version of this image on a more ornate mount with a decorative back copyrighted in 1889. They date this image to August 1887 and record no earlier portraits on their web Keller catalog. The Perkins School for the Blind has the most extensive surviving archive of Keller photographs (the archive of Helen Keller International, the organization Keller co-founded in 1915 to support soldiers blinded during the First World War was destroyed along with its headquarters when the Twin Towers fell in 2001). The earliest Perkins photos, including another image by Collins, are dated to 1888.

The albumen silver prints measure 3-15/16 by 5-1/2 inches on 4-1/8 by 6-3/8 inch mounts.

Edition + Condition: Both images are fine on "Collins, Photo, Huntsville, / Ala." mounts with scalloped edges and blank backs. The Keller image is overexposed, hiding many of the details of Keller's white dress, which is indistinguishable in places from her white dog. The photographic print itself is fine. On the back is a note dating the image to "Aug. 1887".

Sullivan's portrait is also somewhat overexposed, blurring details of her white dress with a raised flower design. The lighting for this photograph makes her glow. The blank back of this photograph also has an "Aug. 1887" notation, along with a pencilled caption, "Anne M. Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller, wife of John A. Macy."

The blank backs of these cabinet cards suggest an 1890s date for the prints; the mention of Sullivan's husband and the wording suggests the caption was written between their marriage in 1905 and their separation in 1914.

Both cabinet cards have remnants of adhesive on the back (verso), probably where they were removed from an album.

Publication: Huntsville, AL: Collins, Photo, [August 1887].

Item No: #307181


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