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'Luminaries and Family': Honoring the Scurlock Studio and Black Washington

January 30, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama from Independence Mall in Philadelphia.)

Scurlock_exhibit "Washington is a treasure trove of black history and culture," remarked Eleanor Holmes Norton at the opening earlier this week of the National Museum of African American History and Culture's gallery in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Several hundred people, including foundation and nonprofit leaders, were welcomed by director Lonnie G. Bunch III and viewed the first exhibit in the gallery -– the museum's home base until its building opens on the National Mall in 2015.

The show is a selection of one hundred photographs, plus cameras and other objects, from the Scurlock Studio, established in 1911 by Addison Scurlock, a teenager when he arrived from North Carolina with his camera bag. The pictures are from the Scurlock Studio Collection, housed at the American History museum. Howard University, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the Scurlock family loaned the artifacts.

Scurlock_scurlocks Addison Scurlock's sons, Robert and George, continued the business until 1994; in addition to the studio, they established the Capitol School of Photography, which counted among its students the post-WW II generation of black photojournalists and Jacqueline Onassis. The studio at 9th and U Street, in the cultural and commercial center of black Washington, was razed by urban renewal in the 1980s.

Portrait photography was the mainstay of the studio: "The Scurlocks showed that black is beautiful even before blacks acknowledged it," said Norton, the non-voting delegate to Congress from the District. "Everybody wanted to be photographed by the Scurlock Studio."

That included entertainers like Fredi Washington, star of 1934's Imitation of Life; political leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois; business people like Madam C.J. Walker; and countless portraits of local families in groups or as individuals -- all fine, sensitive, beautifully done. Very much of the times, each one reflecting a contemporary hair style, clothing, pose. The viewer is pulled into a narrative in these portraits that's sometimes enigmatic, sometimes direct. The exhibition text describes the "Scurlock look" as "dignified, sophisticated; cultured respectability, family stability."

Scurlock_marian_anderson.The exhibition also shows what the Scurlocks did when they got out of the studio: the iconic image of Marion Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, an event that apparently inspired FDR to desegregate military production units; an impossibly-young looking MLK speaking at Howard University after the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956; black protesters in front of Lincoln Theater, which was built for "colored people exclusively" when venues were segregated. The protest was against Gone with the Wind, then showing at the theater, and its representation of the pre-war South. (One of the buildings that survived "renewal," the Lincoln Theater was restored not long ago and is again an important D.C. destination. Its preservation in the photograph is part of the studio's architectural documentation of the city itself.)

Photo essays appeared in Ebony, Look and Flash! magazines, and Scurlock's news photos were regular features in black newspapers such as the Crisis and the Washington Bee. The exhibit features two particularly nice photos from essays on the only black-owned and operated bus line in America and another from an essay on train workers picturing a group of cooks in their tiny moving kitchen.

There's more, of course: the Scurlocks went beyond Shaw and other middle-class neighborhoods to record the city's poor -- children playing in a small row house street with the Capitol dome in the background, near but, as evident in the children's surroundings, very far away indeed.

As Howard University's official photographer for ninety years, the studio also recorded everything from athletic events to seminars to graduations.

In all the photos, you sense the Scurlocks themselves, confident in their skill and artistry, and engaging their subjects in such as way that when they face the camera their souls almost seem visible. The photographs are a pleasure to see. The political and social subtext makes the experience all the more moving.

"The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise" opens on January 30 and will run until November 15, 2009, with programs and a book complementing the exhibit. The new gallery is spacious and easy to find: just make a right at the sit-in lunch counter transported from Greensboro, North Carolina! NMAACH also offers virtual exhibits at their Web site.

And don't forget: February is Black History Month.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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