American Culture

Scurlock Studios

by Dawn Farmer

The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise a photo exhibition currently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery. The exhibition runs through November 2009.

In our time they are a brand: three artistic African Americans from one family, who captured Washington, the District, this community of freedmen. Their images spoke clearly: here are our efforts, our military men, our debutantes, our ministers, our friends, our tuxedos, our cotillions, our geniuses, our great minds, our children. Our lights, our cameras, our work. – A.J. Verdelle

Verdelle is speaking about Addison Scurlock and his two sons George and Robert Scurlock of Washington, D.C. Addison Scurlock’s photography has been called the visual record of W.E.B.Du Bois’ strategy to uplift Black America by the “Talented Tenth.” Du Bois’ vision included an active and successful middle class whose behaviors and practices effectively countered prevailing racial stereotypes about African Americans. The images created in the Scurlock Studios inspired optimism in the African American community of Washington. The images were more than a response to racial stereotypes but a testament to the dreams and hopes of those pictured. These portraits were about how the person wished to be known and remembered.

There was a special “Scurlock look” – dignified, mature and sophisticated. Addison understood how to light the beautiful variety of African American skin tones. The son George Scurlock attributed the Scurlock style to three qualities – posing, lighting, and retouching – with the final image being fine-tuned on the negative itself. The Scurlocks used a large-format five-by-seven inch view camera with five-by-seven film backs. This yielded large enough negatives to permit retouching.

For nearly ninety years Howard University retained the Scurlock Studios as its official photographer. The resulting body of work presents Howard University as a vibrant institution of diversity and intellectual vigor. Those many decades saw visiting dignitaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marion Anderson, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, Mary McLeod Bethune and Jackie Robinson. Their work not only graced the University but the press as well.

In 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington erupted in waves of violence and riots. In response George Scurlock took his camera outside their U Street studio and recorded the neighborhood reaction. His images capture the National Guardsman with rifles and firefighters battling a blaze a few doors down from the studio. One of the images remaining from that period was a sign the Scurlocks displayed in their exterior display case that said “Soul Brothers All the Way.”

Addison retired in 1963 and sold the business to his two sons. He died the following year at the age of eighty-one. His work became known outside the African American community only after his death. Towards the end of Robert Scurlock’s life the vast collection of Scurlock Studio work was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. The collection includes more than 250,000 negatives and 10,000 photographic prints along with cameras, studio and darkroom equipment, nearly a century of business records. Much of the collection has been digitized and is available to research on-line.

Here are a few of my favorites from this gorgeous collection.

Addison and Mamie Scurlock 1910-20

Charles Tignor Duncan 1930 – as an adult he went on to work on the landmark Brown vs Board of Education, first general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dean of Howard University School of Law and advisor to Walter Washington during his tenure as mayor of the District of Columbia.

Lt. Alma Jackson 1945

Flappers at Griffith Stadium 1928/29

Howard University Baseball

The curator of the collection adds his thoughts here.

7 replies »

  1. I wish I could take portraits. I was walking through china town in hawaii a few years ago and saw a bazillion pictures i wanted to take, but couldn’t.

  2. Ubertramp – I’m totally with you there. I just can’t take photos of people. It’s an invasive act (for me) – and yet when you look at the work of the Scurlocks you realize these images gave face to the otherwise ignored. These images are nothing short of a celebration. The ability to capture another human on film is a gift. At least you remember the faces you saw in Chinatown – maybe their power is in memory. 🙂

  3. yeah. i had to settle for taking pictures of the fish at the market. 🙂 it was too dark, tho, and the pics didn’t come out. I’ve always been fascinated with portraits and people pics, regardless of the subject. Especially in black and white with shadows and skin tone and wrinkles. That second pic is amazing.

  4. Even more amazing when you consider that all that potential was captured years before that young man actualized his life contributions.

    Sorry about the fish.

  5. This is super cool, Dawn. The story and the ability to flip through all those photographs. Thanks so much.

    I’m not very far, but i’ve found one titled “School Children in Costumes”. It’s actually a picture of FDR giving a speech, but i’m going to keep on believing that there are school children in there.

    I like taking pictures of children. With adults i feel the same as the two of you, unless i’ve got a long lens and the person doesn’t know i’m photographing.