Robert Alexander Gilbert (1870-1942) was a Black photographer interested in ornithology and chemistry who worked for ornithologist William Brewster from the mid 1890s until Brewster’s death in 1919 and at various tasks around the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University beyond 1919. He was an Associate of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
Gilbert was not officially recognized for his photographic work with William Brewster, although Brewster did not claim credit for all the images in his collection. It was assumed that Brewster took all the photographic prints bequeathed to the Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the MCZ (EMLA) upon his death. However, while conducting research for a book, author John Hanson Mitchell, former editor of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s (MAS) Sanctuary magazine, discovered over 2000 of Brewster’s glass plate negatives in the attic of a building owned by the MAS. One of the images in particular, a photograph of a young, well-attired Black man standing in front of a rustic cabin in the wilderness, captured his interest. Mitchell was curious as to the identity of this young man. Later, in the mid-1970s, Mitchell had a chance encounter with an Archives Assistant at the MCZ who suggested to him that all of Brewster’s photographs were, in fact, taken by Brewster’s assistant, a young Black man named Robert Gilbert. This piqued Mitchell’s interest and launched his journey to discover more about Gilbert. The quest culminated with the publication in 2005 of Mitchell’s Looking for Mr. Gilbert: the Reimagined Life of an African American. In 2014 an e-book edition was published as well.
Mitchell’s publication helps provide new insight into Robert Gilbert’s life and work. Brewster’s journals and diaries, now digitally available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), are also valuable records attesting to Gilbert’s contributions in a variety of areas. While only a handful of Brewster’s photographs in the MCZ collection can be positively attributed to Gilbert, it is clear that Gilbert was with Brewster for photo sessions during the years they worked together. The photographic relationship between Brewster and Gilbert is intriguing. There is new enthusiasm to examine Brewster’s journals and diaries more closely now that they are digitized and being transcribed, to clarify Gilbert’s role in photographic collaboration with Brewster. As a result of identifying connections between the collections in the Museum of American Bird Art at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the EMLA, a cooperative research project is underway.