Scurlock Photography Studio: Father and Sons Documented Black Washington for Much of 20th Century


ADDISON SCURLOCK, Howard University Students,” circa 1920-30 (printed 1970). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

FOR THE GREATER PART of the 20th century, America’s black metropolises were documented by visionary black photographers who forged successful businesses and important roles as local community historians. They offered portraits of the elite and captured ordinary people, important events, and the hum of the neighborhood.

Many cities had multiple photographers. Others had a single prominent figure who documented the community for a sustained period, sometimes spanning generations. Harlem had James VanDerZee and later Louis H. Draper; John W. Mosley was in Philadelphia; Charles “Teenie” Harris was in Pittsburgh; and Washington, D.C., had Addison Scurlock (1883-1964) and his sons.

Addison was born in Fayetteville, N.C., and moved with his family to Washington in 1900. He apprenticed for three years with Moses Rice, a white photographer who had a studio and supply store with his brother on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the vicinity of the Smithsonian museums.

After operating independently for a few years at locations including a studio at his parent’s home on Florida Avenue, Addison established Scurlock Studio on U Street in 1911. His wife Mamie Scurlock served as business manager, and the storefront located in the heart of the black community thrived for more than 60 years. (Construction of the city’s Metro forced the studio to move.)

 


SCURLOCK STUDIO, “Mamie Scurlock and Addison Scurlock,” 1955 (cellulose acetate photonegative). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

SCURLOCK DEPICTED HIS SUBJECTS with dignity and sophistication, a look defined by a combination of light, shadow, posing, and retouching. Alain Locke, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Duke Ellington, Madame C.J. Walker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Sterling Brown, Charles Hamilton Houston, Lillian Evans Tibbs, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and Ralph Bunche, were among his sitters.

For decades, Addison provided official photography for Howard University. His sons George Scurlock (1919-2005) and Robert Scurlock (1917-1994) eventually joined the business and the family photographed black Washington for more than 80 years.

Scurlock depicted his subjects with dignity and sophistication, a look defined by a combination of light, shadow, posing, and retouching.

Given their location in the nation’s capital, they often captured figures and moments of national import. The Scurlocks documented presidential visits to Howard by Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and most recently, Bill Clinton. W.E.B. Du Bois’s most famous portrait, a profile shot executed with complex lighting and shadows, was made by Addison. The recognizable image of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter morning was photographed by Robert.

Acquired in 1997, the Scurlock archive of more than 10,000 prints and 250,000 negatives is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), along with photography equipment and financial records. An online project is designed to make the images available for viewing and also invites the public to help identify subjects who appear in countless un-captioned photographs.

There are real treasures to be found in the archive. Images of Howard art department figures James A. Porter and Lois Mailou Jones are in the collection. There are photographs of Jones taken by Addison in the 1930s and images of the artist in her studio captured a half century later by Robert in the 1980s. Undated photographs by Addison document several drawings by Porter and he also photographed paintings by Jones in 1938-39. One of the black-and-white images is of “Dans un Café à Paris (Leigh Whipper),” a 1939 full-color painting by Jones that is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum and is currently on view.

“The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” an exhibition of more than 100 Scurlock photographs was presented at NMAH in 2009. A collaboration between the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and NMAH, the show was the first organized by the then-forthcoming African American museum. More recently, descendants of George donated 12 bankers boxes of family photos, papers, and ephemera to NMAAHC in 2014.

 


From left, ADDISON SCURLOCK, “Lois Mailou Jones,” circa 1935-37 (acetate film photonegative). ; ROBERT SCURLOCK, “Lois Mailou Jones in Her Studio,” circa 1980s (black-and-white photoprint). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

THE LEGACY OF SCURLOCK STUDIO was discussed last month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The museum’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts hosted a symposium exploring “The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, DC,” with scholars and curators giving presentation over two days (March 16-17).

NMAAHC curators Paul Gardullo and Rhea L. Combs focused on the Scurlocks. Gardullo concentrated on the founding of the studio and Addison’s pioneering aesthetic and business foresight. Combs considered the strategies of the sons to sustain the business through the century, responding to market shifts, societal changes, and technological advancements.

Gardullo began his presentation about Scurlock Studio by offering “a public word of praise and prayer” for Donna Wells (1953-2009). He said the former librarian of prints and photographs at Howard University taught him and others “so much about the Scurlocks and their legacy, and the importance of black image in Washington and nationwide.”

His presentation was titled “Positioning the Race: The Scurlock Studio and the Development of a New Negro Aesthetic Through Photography” and he gave an engaging and insightful overview of the family business and its cultural impact.

 


ADDISON SCURLOCK, Detail of W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1911 | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

“From 1911 to 1994, across most of the 20th century, the Scurlock photographers Addison and his sons George and Robert captured and captivated their city of Washington, D.C., picturing individuals, families, groups and businesses at weddings, graduations, and meetings. They helped provide a visual narrative for the construction of a new black identity in the opening decades of the 20th century, an identity expressed in the ideas of the New Negro Movement with its commitment to black pride, solidarity, and a demand for racial fairness,” Gardullo said.

“[The Scurlocks] helped provide a visual narrative for the construction of a new black identity in the opening decades of the 20th century, an identity expressed in the ideas of the New Negro Movement with its commitment to black pride, solidarity, and a demand for racial fairness.”
— NMAAHC Curator Paul Gardullo

“Situated at the hub of a strong urban city comprised of an all-black residential area, a burgeoning commercial district, and a world-class university, the studio thrived in a unique location where it could portray the lives of a large and expanding black middle class. Scurlock portraits succeeded in capturing its identity and complexity as well as helping to negotiate and define its social boundaries.”

He continued: “Today, I want to briefly gesture to the variety of ways that over the first four decades of the century Addison Scurlock in particular positioned himself, his sitters …his business, his city, his photography in a way that did not just chronicle black life in Washington, but deeply participated in the politics of race and culture, the ideologies of uplift, and the aesthetics of the New Negro Movement and renaissance. In so doing, the Scurlock body of work is a unique and profoundly important site for examining how photography shaped and was shaped by Washington’s art world and by visual culture and expression, more broadly.”

 


Scurlock & Sons: From left, Robert Scurlock, Addison Scurlock, and George Scurlock. | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

HIS COLLEAGUE PICKED UP the discussion of studio in a later presentation. The following day, Combs, a film and photography curator at NMAAHC, shared how Scurlock’s sons Robert and George began to carry the business forward about mid century. Her presentation was titled “Scurlock 2.0: The National Impact of Local Image Makers.”

Both sons apprenticed with their father in high school and graduated from Howard. George specialized in portraits, and Robert brought in corporate work and introduced color photography.

“Like their father and mother, they were both entrenched in the social elite class and community of black Washington. The middle-class aspirational goals and ideals of Addison Scurlock at the beginning of the 20th century that my colleague Dr. Gardullo discussed at length yesterday, influenced the work of his sons,” Combs said.

“Early on Robert and George seemed to demonstrate broader areas of interest that expanded beyond respectability politics. These interests would reflect in their work in later years as Robert and George strived to keep the Scurlock name and business afloat and relevant in order to keep up and compete with the expanding commercial photography business.”

“Early on Robert and George seemed to demonstrate broader areas of interest that expanded beyond respectability politics. These interests would reflect in their work in later years as Robert and George strived to keep the Scurlock name and business afloat and relevant in order to keep up and compete with the expanding commercial photography business.”
— NMAAHC Curator Rhea L. Combs

(Combs said Addison had another son, Addison Jr., who was born in 1914 and served as president of the camera club at Dunbar High School. The younger Addison died his sophomore year of college at Howard from scarlet fever, she said.)

 


When Howard University invited Marian Anderson to sing in its concert series, organizers sought Constitution Hall as the venue. Owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the hall was segregated. After Anderson’s performance was refused, the historic concert was moved to the Lincoln Memorial. Shown, ROBERT SCURLOCK, “Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial: series, #135,” April 9, 1939 (cellulose acetate photonegative). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

At start of World War II, both brothers planned to join the military. But George failed the health exam and was unable to enlist. Robert went into the Air Force and was a member of the 301st Fighter Squadron, the Tuskeegee Airmen. While stationed overseas in Italy, he photographed fellow airmen conducting daily activiites and training.

While Robert was deployed, George handled the studio’s commercial work photographing weddings and graduations and specialized in retouching, while Addison remained focused on portraits.

When Robert returned, Combs said, he sought to distinguish himself from his father, pursuing his interest in photojournalism, which, along with stock photography, offered bourgeoning business opportunities. He covered black news events and sold the images to black newspapers. Given the “popularity and relevance” of the black press, Robert saw the exposure as a way to expand the family brand, she said. His images also appeared in magazines, including Fortune, Look, Ebony, Jet, and Life.

“He wanted to make images that could be licensed and used at various outlets. …He wanted to use photography to affect change in the world, although some may argue that in his own way that is what Addison was attempting, as well, when he established the Scurlock Studio and created these softly lit and dignified portraits of African Americans,” Combs said.

“[Robert] wanted to use photography to affect change in the world, although some may argue that in his own way that is what Addison was attempting, as well, when he established the Scurlock Studio and created these softly lit and dignified portraits of African Americans.”
— NMAAHC Curator Rhea L. Combs


SCURLOCK STUDIO, “Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr., Howard University,” produced June 7, 1957 (paper photo print). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

Robert used the GI Bill to establish the Capital School of Photography in 1948, a four-year venture where George taught classes in the evenings. In 1952, Robert opened Custom Craft, Washington’s first custom color lab.

The brothers purchased the Scurlock Studio from their father in 1963, and a few years later incorporated Scurlock Studio and Custom Craft, Combs said. Each brother concentrated on specific aspects of the business. George focused on portraits and photography assignments, meanwhile Robert took on corporate and color work, and also printing and processing tasks. George retired in 1980 and Robert continued until his death in 1994.

Gardullo said, “Scurlock used artistry with a strong sense of business acumen with community engagement. It was this powerful alchemy between business and art that made the Scurlocks’ work and the work of many black photography studios so powerful and important at this particular historical moment.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
“The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing The Promise” accompanied the Smithsonian exhibition co-presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. Edited by Deborah Willis and Jane Lusaka, “Visual Journal: Harlem and DC in the Thirties and Forties,” coincided with an exhibition presented by the Center for African American History and Culture and on view in the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall.

 


SCURLOCK STUDIO., “James Porter,” n.d. (cellulose acetate photonegative). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 


SCURLOCK STUDIO, “Duke Ellington sitting next to white piano with hands clasped in lap,” nd (black-and-white photoprint). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 


ADDISON SCURLOCK, “President Calvin Coolidge, #118,” circa 1924 (cellulose acetate (or nitrate?) photonegative with contact print). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 


ADDISON SCURLOCK, “Charles Drew with Dunbar High School basketball team,” circa 1922 (photoprint). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 


Lot 81: ADDISON SCURLOCK, “Madame CJ Walker,” circa 1910-15 (silver print portrait). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold at Swann Auction Galleries on Feb. 25, 2010 for $2880 (including fees).

 


SCURLOCK STUDIO, “Alain Locke,” November 1949 (cellulose acetate photonegative). | Scurlock Studio Records, circa 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

 

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