Charles W. Blackburne was born in Brooklyn in 1860. He served in the US Coast Guard Signal Corps from 1885 to 1894. After his discharge, Blackburne resided at 170 Jay Street in Brooklyn. Customs records show that he traveled to the West Indies in April 1897 on the SS Madiana. The earliest photos in this collection were likely taken on that trip. In July 1897 he formed a business partnership with Edward Hanes “buying and selling on commission all sorts of goods, wares and merchandise for customers and the trade in the West Indies.” During the span of his career as an importer of goods to the United States from the West Indies, Blackburne pursued his interest in photography, setting up his large format camera to expose on glass plates the world in which he traveled from 1897 to 1912. The surviving collection of 453 glass negatives documents the physical and cultural landscape of the Caribbean at a time when colonial powers were inspired by the discovery of new markets, new places to settle Europe’s poor migrants, and the desire to “civilize the barbarians.”
Although complicit in the economic and cultural forces that assaulted the Caribbean, Blackburne took some insightful images that observe, not necessarily sympathetically, the impact of colonial domination. In elegant red script, Blackburne briefly described each image on its corresponding negative sleeve, sometimes noting location, activity, or individuals. He photographed the elite class on picnics and at cricket games and then turned the lens of his camera on the poor, indigenous populations, recording activities such as washing clothes and barbering on the street. Some of the individual images are remarkably beautiful. Collectively, they tell a richer story—of fifteen years in the Caribbean as a trader and observer of a colonial stronghold revealed through one man’s desire to record his experiences in photographs. After retiring, Blackburne lived in Brooklyn and Richmond Hills, Queens.
Before John Noll donated these photographs in honor of his father-in-law, Richard Waldmann, who had originally recognized the value of these wonderful images and preserved them, they had been in storage and unseen since Blackburne's death in 1936.