THE WIND WAS BLOWING HARD OFF THE POTOMAC ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1933, AS Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, the popular radio evangelist, gathered more than 150 new members of his flock for a mass baptism in the chill waters at Georgetown. Perched just above them on the abutment of the old abandoned Aqueduct Bridge, Addison Scurlock prepared to capture the remarkable tableau with his huge banquet camera.
Scurlock, one of the leading photographers of his day, stood behind his tripod, draped the darkcloth over his head, opened the shutter and peered at the inverted image in the ground glass. There, in the center of the frame beneath a black skullcap, was the solemn mustachioed face of Michaux, whose distinctive "Happy Am I" radio hour on WTOP had attracted such a large following that he was now being carried on the CBS network. Michaux was flanked by three dozen disciples of his Church of God, the men in black suits and bow ties, the women in flowing dresses with cloche hats. Surrounding Michaux, their heads wrapped in bright white cloth, were the scores of new members who were about to be dipped in the dark waters in their milky baptismal robes.
A slender, soft-spoken man, Scurlock knew exactly what he wanted. Like a movie director, he commanded the scene and composed his shot, raising his voice to get everyone's attention, urging them all to look into the camera and stand close together as hundreds of family members, friends and gawkers looked on from the shore by the Capital Traction Co. streetcar barn. Scurlock steadied himself, focused the camera by turning a metal knob, set the aperture for the proper lighting and tilted his lens stage to further sharpen the focus for the 20-inch oversize negative.
Hold your positions, please, he called out. This won't take but a minute, but you've got to stand still. His left hand squeezed the rubber ball that opened the pneumatic shutter, capturing the image. Then, a split-second later, he released it to end the exposure.
What remained after the shutter had closed, after Scurlock returned to his darkroom at Ninth and U streets NW to bathe the image in chemical solutions, and even now, with most of those church faithful long gone, is a fabulously frozen image of Washington's history. Scurlock captured the spirit of Michaux's revival meetings in the stunning array of faces of the mostly poor and working-class congregation. They are faces etched with excitement and anxiety,
confusion and hope for a better life, a striking portrait of the city's faith captured forever by a master craftsman.
The mass baptism photograph is only one piece of a massive photographic legacy encompassing tens of thousands of pictures left by Scurlock, who opened his photo business here in 1904, and by his sons, Robert, who now runs the family business, and George, who also took up his father's craft for several decades before turning to other pursuits.
Long before his death in 1964 at age 81, Addison N. Scurlock carved out a unique place in Washington: He was respected as an artist, a businessman and, particularly in his later years, as a chronicler of black history.
Scurlock was "ever present at school and church ceremonies and graduations to capture on film Washington's and the nation's premier black community in its work and life," writes Dianne Wright, a historian at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, which has mounted a major show of the Scurlocks' work that runs through March 31. "He ushered its politicians, statesmen, intellectuals, educators, and entertainers into his studio. He gave clear image to their greatness, all too often overlooked and denied by white society. He documented the story of African Americans in a community which cared for, educated, depended on, and promoted its own. The results . . . are a treasury of black images that would certainly have been lost in time were it not for the Scurlocks and their camera."
Scurlock Studio. Fine Photography. The sign hung outside 900 U St. in a bustling neighborhood of black-owned businesses: the Industrial Bank, Powell's Florist, the Hollywood Restaurant, Murray's Printing and Casino, and the Club Prudhomme, one of the city's hot spots. School kids heading home, working people alighting from the streetcars and families out window-shopping after church on Sunday would inevitably be drawn to the photo displays in the window of the Scurlock studio. "Our father would put photographs of famous people and not-so-famous people out there," George Scurlock recalls, "and people saw this nice display and just walked in and asked if you could make them look as beautiful as the people in the display case. . . . There'd be a picture of somebody's cousin there, and they would say, 'Hey, if you can make him look that good, you can make me look better.' "
Addison Scurlock arrived in Washington in 1900 at the age of 17, the son of George Clay Scurlock, a Fayetteville, N.C., politician who moved here and worked as a messenger for the Treasury Depart- ment while studying law. Addison's siblings went into medicine and teaching, but he was taken with the idea of photography and apprenticed himself to Moses P. Rice, a white photographer, to learn the trade. The enterprising young man began serving his own customers in his parents' home on Florida Avenue NW and drummed up work at Howard University and at the "colored" high schools, M Street and Armstrong. In 1911, he opened the Scurlock Studio.
"First and foremost, he was really a gentleman," says Wright, who credits Scurlock's artistic ability and his personality with establishing his niche in his newly adopted city. "People trusted him. He was allowed in all their homes, and he entertained people in his home. He didn't need a calling card. He had to establish that he knew what he was doing and be accepted in Washington society, and because of his skill, his talent and his personality, he was taken seriously."
EIGHTY YEARS AFTER HIS FATHER STARTED THE family business, Robert S. Scurlock answers the telephone in the cramped office of Custom Craft Color Photography, a storefront near Dupont Circle crowded with old film canisters, retouching kits, boxes of photographic supplies and a wall filled with color portraits of Effi Barry, Ralph Bunche and others less notable. Robert Scurlock, himself among the early pioneers of color photography techniques, is responding to a query from the U.S. Postal Service seeking photos of famous black Americans. But then the call is interrupted by a walk-in customer who knocks on his door to ask him about shooting a wedding that weekend. Both these inquiries have interrupted the business at hand, which is a complaint he is preparing to send a black business magazine that has used one of his photos without credit -- or payment. It is the kind of complaint his father sometimes had to make, he says. Robert Scurlock -- who in 1948 founded the Capital School of Photography and trained several prominent black photographers --
takes pride in continuing family traditions, including the custom of putting a famous Washington face in his front window. "For years, one of the marks of arriving socially in black Washington was to have your portrait hanging in Scurlock's window," wrote The Washington Post's Jacqueline Trescott in marking a 1976 exhibit of Addison Scurlock's work at the Corcoran Gallery. On this recent day, the hallowed spot in the Scurlock window is occupied by D.C. Deputy Mayor Carol B. Thompson.
His father, Scurlock says admiringly, had a special touch that gave his portraits "the Scurlock look," the heart of which was "the Scurlock face." That face had to be perfect -- or as close to it as nature and retouching would allow.
"My father knew how to place the light so it was just right. And once he got it right, there would be no excessive shadows. But then he would see the negative, and see that it could be helped by straightening a nose a little here, straightening a lip a little bit," says Scurlock. "He wanted it to look like the person in their Sunday best, their best face forward." Often, the retouching to remove blemishes would be done before the client even saw the portrait, Scurlock says with a smile. "Otherwise, that customer might not even finish paying for it."
For decade after decade, thousands of Washingtonians have wanted the Scurlock face, for themselves, their spouses, children, extended families, school groups, dancing salons, fraternal organizations, marching bands and more. "There are probably very few homes in the black population of the Washington area without a Scurlock," he says.
The essence of a Scurlock, according to Jane Freundel Levey, editor of Washington History magazine, went beyond the artful use of light and shadow and an eye for composition. In a cover story on the family, she wrote: "Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of the Scurlock photograph is the dignity, the uplifting quality of the demeanor of every person, captured by photographers who clearly saw each subject as above the ordinary."
That quality is evident in the quiet elegance of the Addison Scurlock portraits on these pages. Author-educator Anna J. Cooper sits serenely on a porch in her spacious home at Second and T NW in LeDroit Park. Cooper, the greatly respected principal of Dunbar High School, founded Frelinghuysen University, a school for unemployed blacks that she ran out of her home. A similar mood is evident in the 1916 portrait of Howard University scientist Ernest Just, the longtime head of the department of zoology, who is shown pondering the design of an electrical experiment. In one of his earliest portraits, circa 1905, Scurlock captured the spirit of a formidable trio of black southern Republicans: P.B.S. Pinchback, who became the first black to serve as a governor when he was appointed acting chief executive of Louisiana during Reconstruction; Judge Miflin Gibbs, the first black municipal judge of Little Rock; and Col. Jim Lewis of Arkansas.
Addison Scurlock's portraits were treasured and often widely reprinted, particularly those of the famous -- Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell and many others. "Nowadays, in the era of fast turnaround, everybody wants to know how fast you can do it. Nobody asks, "How good can you do it?' " says Robert Scurlock. "In his era, though, he was an artisan, and people weren't in a hurry."
THE SCURLOCKS' DOCUMENTARY SCENES CAN BE AS evocative as the portraits. Consider the 1928 picture of a church dedication in the Shaw neighborhood, shown on Page 24. There is the Rev. Robert Brooks, hand on a prayer book, presiding over the cornerstone-laying ceremony at what is now the Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ at 1701 11th St. NW. The church had been set up in the 1860s as a mission for newly freed slaves, and already had a 60-year tradition of community service and charity work when it opened its modern brick building. In Addison Scurlock's photograph, church stalwarts look on proudly in a striking study of the city's middle-class black community.
It was shortly after this time that Scurlock and his sons began functioning as a black news service in the capital, recording some of the major events and personalities of the day and supplying photos to the Afro-American newspapers and other black media across the country. "In the 1930s and '40s, there were very few sources for black news. We covered things just like the AP -- our own little news service," Robert Scurlock says. "We'd shoot 'em, caption 'em and send 'em out. If they used it, they'd pay us, and if not, they'd return it. We didn't get many returned." When the famed contralto Marian Anderson was barred from Constitution Hall in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 75,000 people showed up, including, of course, the Scurlocks. More than 50 years later, Robert Scurlock still gets requests for the photograph he made of the historic moment.
In her histories of the nation's capital, Constance McLaughlin Green developed the theme of black Washington as "the Secret City," a separate world with institutions of its own that remained virtually unknown to the white majority.
Some historians and commentators see Addison Scurlock as the man who more than anyone left a historical record of that world. But his son Robert believes his father did so almost accidentally, merely in the course of running his business and perfecting his art. "All my dad did was to accept the routine commissions and jobs that came along. He never saw himself as part of the Secret City. He was documenting the everyday lives of his day. He was a part of the community that he lived in."
Whatever his intent, the photos are a price- less Washington legacy. In the words of Steven C. Newsome, director of the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, "They give us connections. They tell stories. They let us remember."