- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

For nearly a century, black Washingtonians celebrated weddings, graduations and family milestones with photographs taken by the Scurlock Studio. They knew the pictures taken by Addison Scurlock and his sons, Robert and George, would be well composed, beautifully lit and worth treasuring for generations.

Middle-class folks — doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers — valued the photographers’ skills as did dance troupes, sports teams and civic groups. Famous people, including John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali, appreciated the Scurlocks’ talents, too.

The Scurlock photography studio at Ninth and U streets Northwest is no more, having been razed in 1983 for Metro construction. Robert Scurlock died in 1994, George Scurlock in 2005. Their father died in 1964.

They are gone but their collective portrait of black Washington lives on at the National Museum of American History. In 1997, the museum acquired the Scurlock archive of 250,000 negatives and 10,000 prints, plus cameras, equipment and business records.

From this trove, curators Michelle Delaney and Paul Gardullo have selected 100 photos and memorabilia to pay homage to this talented family. “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise” is the first exhibit presented in the National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery. This space in the remodeled American history museum will be used by the African American museum until its new building opens on the Mall in 2015.

From the start, this upbeat show focuses on the Scurlock signature silky, black-and-white portraiture infused with a sense of uplift.

These photos of dapper men and glamorous women from the 1920s to the 1950s are synonymous with “black is beautiful,” a positive message seldom voiced during that segregated era.

Among the most arresting portraits are a trio of aging Civil War-era leaders; a costumed opera singer named Madame Evanti; and Madam C.J. Walker, who started a line of hair-care products for black women.

Scholars and teachers such as Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Carter Woodson are shown in the same flattering light to play up the value of education. For decades, the Scurlocks were the official photographers for Howard University, and an entire section of the exhibit is devoted to their images of campus life.

The pride, self-reliance and dignity expressed through these photos counters the racial stereotypes promulgated by prejudice and discrimination. Modernity is championed, too, revealing the photographers’ familiarity with the styles and techniques of the day.

For Addison Scurlock, every image he snapped was a reflection of his own “yes we can” spirit. In 1900, the budding portraitist moved from North Carolina to Washington and apprenticed with Moses Rice, a local white photographer, before starting his own business.

In 1911, Mr. Scurlock opened a studio at Ninth and U streets, a strategic location in the city’s black business district. His wife, Mamie, was his business manager for more than 50 years. A 1910s portrait of the well- dressed couple at Great Falls exemplifies their ambition and togetherness.

Drawn to Mr. Scurlock’s growing reputation, W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, published his photos in “Crisis,” the organization’s journal.

Work for other black magazines and institutions followed.

Mr. Scurlock had the advantage of working in Washington, a mecca of black culture, but he was only one of several prominent photographers who conveyed how black Americans saw themselves in the 1900s. A survey of photos drawn from these talents, including New York’s James VanDerZee, Cornelius Marion “C.M.” Battey of the Tuskegee Institute and New Orleans-based Arthur Bedou, is long overdue.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, Robert and George Scurlock were working side by side with their father. They specialized in commercial assignments, such as high school commencements and reunions, while their father handled the studio portraits.

The group photos produced during these decades are as positive as the earlier images. They present black businesses around U Street, new housing developments in Northeast and a popular Negro League team, the Homestead Grays.

Evident, too, are stirrings of the civil rights movement — protests at Peoples drugstores, picketing “Gone With the Wind” at the Lincoln Theatre and Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

After World War II, the Scurlocks’ business expanded with the Capitol School of Photography, operated by Robert and George. Their most famous student was Jacqueline Bouvier who briefly worked as a newspaper photographer before marrying John F. Kennedy.

The school closed in 1952, but Robert Scurlock soon established another business, a color processing and printing lab called Custom Craft on 18th Street Northwest. He continued his photography in a more straightforward style than the soft-focused, romantic imagery preferred by his father.

Reflecting this approach is Robert Scurlock’s color photo of looters on 14th Street Northwest during the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968. When the turbulence spread to the blocks around the Scurlock Studio, George Scurlock aimed his lens at the National Guardsmen and firefighters overtaking the neighborhood.

These disturbing scenes are the exception among the optimistic images in the exhibit. The Scurlocks did not represent the full picture of black life in the District — its poverty and hopelessness — but concentrated on more affluent residents. Nevertheless, their photography provides an important record of the city’s evolution, from a perspective too often ignored.


WHAT: “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise”

WHERE: National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Nov. 15


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: americanhistory.si.edu

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