The C. M. Bell Studio Collection consists of more than 30,000 glass negatives spanning the period 1873 to 1916 that were produced by the C. M. Bell Studio and its successors.
Charles Milton Bell (1848-1893) was one of Washington's leading portrait photographers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The studio became known for its large collection of portraits of Washington notables, including politicians, leading businessmen and educators, embassy officials and distinguished visitors from other countries, church leaders, athletes and entertainers, and members of Washington's Black middle class.
C. M. Bell was the youngest member of a family of photographers who operated a studio in the capital from about 1860 to 1874. He became a photographer at the studio of Bell and Brother in 1867, at the age of nineteen. In 1873 he left that studio and opened his own business nearby on Pennsylvania Avenue. Eventually, C.M. Bell's studio eclipsed that of his father and brothers, who closed Bell and Brother about a year later.
Bell expanded his studio until it occupied four street numbers between 459 and 465 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., with an additional "West End Branch" at 701 Fifteenth Street N.W., near the White House. The Pennsylvania Avenue studio was very elegant, and the operating room was equipped with two skylights of clear French plate glass. After 1876, it also boasted a camera that had been specially made by E. and H. T. Anthony for exhibition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a camera that some claimed was the finest in the country.
Bell died on May 12, 1893. His wife, Annie E. Colley Bell, a native Washingtonian, took over the day-to-day operation of the studio, at times assisted by her sons. Struggling to keep the large operation running, she closed the West End Branch and eventually reduced the size of the Pennsylvania Avenue studio. Around 1900, the business was sold to Atha and Cunningham, who operated the studio under Bell's name. They moved the studio to 1321 G Street, N.W., in 1907, but closed the studio in 1909.
In 1916, the C. M. Bell Studio negatives were sold to another Washington photographer, I. M. Boyce. Boyce pulled many of the Indian negatives out of the collection, and these were ultimately sold in the 1950s to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Boyce sold most of the remaining collection to Alexander Graham Bell (no relation to C. M. Bell), who was interested in the study of human heredity and saw the photographs not only as important documentation of Washington's social and political history but as a great source for examining multiple generations of the same family. The negatives were eventually donated to the American Genetic Association. The Library of Congress acquired the collection in 1975 from the American Genetic Association.