This article on Washington's Scurlock photography studio incorrectly said that Robert Scurlock died four years ago. His brother George died in 2005; Robert died in 1994. Also, the article gave an incorrect last name for George's daughter. She is Jacqueline Scurlock Colbert.
Smithsonian Showcases Black Washington as the Scurlock Photographers Saw It
Monday, February 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.