George de Vincent, prominent photographer behind ‘The Shame of a Nation,’ dies at 94


The front cover to "The Shame of a Nation," which featured the photographs of George de Vincent. (Courtesy of Kevin Mattingly )

George de Vincent, a onetime felon, boxer and aspiring painter who went on to a career in photography, becoming a portraitist of the socially prominent, a chronicler of the impoverished and a leading documentarian of Washington area stage productions, died March 13 at his home in the District. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said a friend, Eric Ricks.

By several accounts, Mr. de Vincent led a restless and adventurous early life. He was known to tell friends, “I had been a fast liver, and I don’t mean the organ.”

He grew up in Detroit and left school after sixth grade, at which point the details of his early life become blurry, either because of fading memories or by his design.

At various times, he hitchhiked around the country, worked as a driver for a traveling carnival, was a featherweight boxer and went to jail for bank robbery.

Actress Heather Ehlers in Arena Stage’s production of Arthur Miller' s “The Crucible” in 1966. (George de Vincent)

Artistically inclined from a young age, he also worked as a medical illustrator. He was headed to Sarasota, Fla., to seek work as a painter for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the early 1950s when he ran out of money in Washington.

He fell into photography.

“I was a painter first, but things weren’t that great,” he told The Washington Post years later. “But I did a pastel portrait for a woman of her son. I did it and traded it for a camera.”

He soon began studio work and, over time, developed a strong trade in portraits of Washington-based government leaders, chief executives and the betrothed. Such clientele became the bread-and-butter of Mr. de Vincent’s professional life. But his ambitions grew elsewhere.

He said a transformative moment was seeing Edward Steichen’s celebrated “Family of Man” photography show, first presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955 and brought to Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art the same year. The images depicted an array of human experiences — birth, death, love and war.

Mr. de Vincent collaborated with journalist, author and philanthropist Philip M. Stern on “The Shame of a Nation,” a 1965 book that examined the plight of metropolitan slum dwellers and those subsisting in poverty in Appalachia.

He was shaken, he later told a C-Span interviewer, by seeing families struggle on cents a day, parents who seemed ignorant of the social service system and malnourished children who appeared far more aged than they were.

George de Vincent. (Kevin Mattingly)

He said he hoped the book’s pictures, which alternated between the stark and the playful, would distill for readers one concept about the poor: “We’re warm, alive, gentle, loving human beings, but we’re trapped.”

The book included a foreword by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and was published around the time President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “war on poverty.” The book was, in part, a riposte to critics of the Johnson program.

The poor had been the subject of indelible photography since social reformers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis took their cameras to inner-city ghettos at the turn of the last century. But, the photography authority Jacob Deschin wrote in the New York Times, “The Shame of a Nation” offered “enough fresh examples . . . to prove that new and stronger ways still may be found to show that the poor are very much with us.”

Deschin added that Mr. de Vincent “combines the eye of the artist with the reportorial sense of the competent photojournalist. From the opening picture of the little boy silhouetted against the light illuminating his sordid environment, the reader knows that he is in for something better than the usual fare in this field.”

Mr. de Vincent’s photographic work also appeared in “Poverty Amid Plenty: The American Paradox,” a 1969 presidentially commissioned study of anti-poverty programs, and in “O Say Can You See By Dawn’s Urban Blight,” a 1965 book featuring contrasting pictures of Washington’s rich and poor. The text was by Stern and his then-wife, Leni.

“He had a great sense of humor and enormous empathy,” Leni Stern said in an interview this past week. “He came from poverty himself. He understood it.”

Henry George Vincent was born in Detroit on July 7, 1919, and was raised by an uncle. At some point, he started going by his middle name and, as his interest in art deepened, he added the “de” as an homage to Leonardo da Vinci.

His marriage to Shelley Langston, with whom he shared a photography studio in Washington for many years, ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughter, Ameena de Vincent of Paris, and a sister.

Starting in the 1960s, Mr. de Vincent nurtured a decades-long association with Arena Stage and took promotional pictures for many of the company’s productions. Those theater images were the subject of a 1991 retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery.

The Washington Post theater critic Lloyd Rose noted that Mr. de Vincent, who liked to roam the stage during rehearsals for the best shots, had “an eye for the pattern and architecture of a set, for small moments overwhelmed by larger action, for romantic, evocative light.”

“In some cases,” Rose quipped, “his photographs are more interesting than the productions were.”

Mr. de Vincent expressed a fondness for show business.

“The tragedy, the pathos, the comedy — you experience it firsthand,” he told The Post. “I shoot for the moment, the same way you would be watching the neighbors. I don’t shoot it like a play.”

One of his shoots featured the actress Melinda Dillon. “She played the part of a prostitute,” he said. “I had a hard time shooting part of it because it was so tragic and so sad, I couldn’t see through the tears.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
Most Read Local