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The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise

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The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise photo
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian

Editorial Review

A Classy Show Of Pride
Scurlock Photographers Captured The Dignified Face of a Harsh Age

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, Feb. 2, 2009

The Scurlock men loved beauty. A dad and two sons, they prowled this city with their Graflex cameras, pointing and clicking from morning into the deep night. Through their cameras, the world looked sweet, even lush.

Never mind that a good amount of their work was done from the 1920s through the 1950s, when much of black America was enduring a daily harshness.

Addison, the dad, started it all, taking pictures over on U Street, hanging out with jazz folk at night and swearing to naysayers he could make a go of it. He imagined a photographer's life could put food on the table.

It took guts for a black man to dream the way Addison Scurlock did. The Harlem Renaissance hadn't exploded yet when he began to capture a swirling world of Washington men in long coats and fedoras, women in silk and fur. He and his two sons, Robert and George, wanted to capture the way sunlight landed on their subjects. They introduced the viewer to the joy their subjects -- actors, musicians, socialites, artists -- had in simply being alive.

Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Marian Anderson praised the Scurlock crew, but so did students over at Howard University, when that institution was a place for the children of the nation's black elite. And countless men and women from the city's black middle class, who took high tea, held soirees, staged book readings and vacationed over on Maryland beaches, depended on them as well.

The style of their work -- silky, refined, dignified and poised -- became known as "the Scurlock look." It said a lot of things, chief among them that classiness is swell and uplift gets rewarded.

Now -- four years after the last Scurlock photographer, Robert, died -- the Scurlocks are moving from U Street into the Smithsonian. An exhibit, "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise," has just opened and will run through November. It is the first exhibition presented in the National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery, which is located in the National Museum of American History. The African American Museum will have use of the gallery space until its own planned opening in 2015.

The Scurlock exhibition highlights more than 100 black-and-white photographs that were taken when the world was very different for people of color. It was a world where reports of lynchings were in the daily newspapers, along with "coon" ads for minstrel shows.

"In some ways what amazes me about the Scurlocks," says Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and a Scurlock historian, "is, how do people believe something when they shouldn't believe it? There was nothing that told Addison Scurlock he could counter the stereotypical elements in black life at the time. But he countered it."

Washingtonians have doubtless seen a bootleg print here and there of a Scurlock image in local storefronts, but the original prints are so textured and detailed that sepia music swirls about the subjects and their surroundings. Bunch believes the exhibition will not only cement the Scurlock legacy, but also spread it to a national audience.

Here stands Fredi Washington in 1934, as beautiful a figure out of Hollywood as has ever been seen. She has just starred in the movie "Imitation of Life," and was passing through town doing publicity. The movie was about miscegenation and "passing" for white. The portrait is Robert Scurlock's first big-time assignment for Dad. Washington, whose sister married Adam Clayton Powell Jr., is holding a cigarette in her left hand. Though a black-and-white portrait, the red lipstick seems to zoom into the camera. The actress's film career never took off: Studio moguls suggested she pass herself off as white -- art imitating life. She refused. Family pride meant something to her.

The Scurlock family biography is one of simple grit, as well as fortuitous connections. Addison arrived in Washington from North Carolina in 1900. He apprenticed with Moses Rice, a local white photographer, before going off on his own in 1904. (He opened the U Street studio in 1911.) In time, Scurlock met W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned civil rights leader and editor of the Crisis, the NAACP magazine. Du Bois liked Scurlock's work, and many Scurlock photos would be published in the Crisis. Editors from black-oriented newspapers came calling, too, and soon Scurlock images were being viewed at breakfast tables all over the country.

Another fortunate Scurlock alliance occurred with Howard University, for which the Scurlocks served as official photographers for almost 90 years. "When you think of a family business that opened anywhere in America in 1911 and continuing until 1994, it's just a tremendous success," says Michelle Delaney, an associate curator at the National Museum of American History and co-curator of the Scurlock show. "When you think of the circumstances of segregation when Addison was working, it is just incredible."

Aside from common economic obstacles, Scurlock had to contend with the fact that President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, supported a policy of segregation in the federal workforce of Washington. But Addison Scurlock kept snapping away.

If there is an unsung hero of the Scurlock saga, it is Addison's wife, Mamie. She worked beside her husband all her life, managing the studio and its business affairs. She was meticulous in her habits and passionate about collecting overdue bills. She herself was beautiful and fond of wildflowers. On some weekends the couple took trips to the Virginia countryside. She would pose for her husband, flowers in hand, nothing around her save land and trees.

Most everybody on U Street knew Duke. After all, he'd been raised over on Ward Place NW. One of his first bands was called the Washingtonians. Here is Duke Ellington in a double-breasted cream-colored suit. He's wearing a checkered shirt and white tie and there's a white hankie in the breast pocket. The smile's a killer.

The Scurlocks' work began to gain wider recognition in the 1980s and 1990s. But they were still in the shadow of Harlem's celebrated lensman James Van Der Zee, who had a 1969 show at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Any black photographer discovered thereafter seemed to suffer, fairly or not, in comparison with Van Der Zee.

Van Der Zee focused on fashion and Harlem's black middle class as well as political and religious figures. But he also aimed his camera at less savory aspects of Harlem life, such as crime and gut-wrenching poverty. Bunch says of Addison Scurlock: "He was such a good photographer that I do wish he would have focused a little more on D.C.'s alley life, or the large number of migrants who thought this was the promised land and found out it was hell."

After the Met show, Van Der Zee became the subject of essays and magazine spreads, as well as books. "Scurlock's praises have been sung, but Van Der Zee has been lionized," says Paul Gardullo, co-curator of the Scurlock exhibition. Gardullo says the Scurlocks purposefully stuck to a particular oeuvre: "They don't get into poverty. It wasn't their project, and there simply wasn't money in that."

But Robert and George Scurlock, now both deceased, wanted their work and their father's work to survive. So in 1994 they contacted the Smithsonian. "This was an opportunity to bring the history of black Washington into the Smithsonian," Delaney says. "It all happened -- their work -- just a few miles from where I sit every day."

"We're just so proud these photos have captured the beauty of black America when black America was on the road to equality," says Jacqueline Scurlock Corbett, George Scurlock's daughter. "But I don't think they've gotten the notoriety of a James Van Der Zee."

Six women in cloche hats sit in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium in the 1920s. They each display effortless style. One has a fur draped around her shoulders. The wind must be whipping; it's football season and hard into fall. Maybe some of them have beaus down on the field. Maybe they're already plotting a night out on U Street.

The riots came in 1968. Addison Scurlock had been dead four years. George Scurlock was at the studio the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There was no time to worry about catching beauty. He got himself into position and started snapping: Got some pretty good shots of soldiers marching down sidewalks, smoke shooting into the air from the fires, firemen trying to stop those fires.

But the beauty, through time, lives on:

Seventeen dancers, male and female, pose at the Club Prudhom on U Street circa the 1930s. The gents are in tuxedos with shiny lapels. The women are in silk and dance shoes. The world is harsh beyond the club, but inside, with Addison Scurlock snapping away, it looks beautiful.