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Black photographers' work featured at Smithsonian

Associated Press | 3/11/2009, 6:49 a.m.

WASHINGTON — George Scurlock Jr. remembers his grandfather, always clad in a suit and tie, meticulously posing subjects and setting lights to ensure his photographs of Washington’s black community reflected its dignity and ambition.

Addison Scurlock and later two of his sons, including George Scurlock’s father, ran a successful studio from 1911 to 1994. During that time, they captured the growth of a vibrant black middle class that thrived culturally and economically despite segregation. Later, the sons pictured the civil rights movement and then the riots that damaged once-flourishing neighborhoods.

“There was a professional and operating culture within the black community that … had bountiful resources and beauty associated with it that I just don’t think white America has an awareness of,” said George Scurlock Jr.

The era they chronicled now appears in about 100 photographs and other items in the exhibit, “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Curators say the Scurlocks’ confident and sophisticated portrayal of upwardly mobile black people helped counter negative stereotypes.

“You have these images that are representing the beauty of black folks, the dignity of African Americans not just in contrast to racist imagery, but the way in which people want to see themselves,” noted Paul Gardullo, museum curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which helped curate the exhibit.

Several other black studio photographers also documented their communities’ middle and upper middle classes. Among them were James VanDerZee and James Latimer Allen in New York City; Daniel L. Freeman in Washington; Cornelius M. Battey and his student, P.H. Polk, in Tuskegee, Ala.; and Arthur P. Bedou in Louisiana.

Curators hope that showcasing the work of Addison Scurlock and his sons, Robert and the elder George, will help make the family studio more widely known.

“[Addison] Scurlock has never achieved the national presence in the history of photography that I think is deserved,” said Michelle Delaney, associate curator of photography at the American history museum.

After training with Moses P. Rice, a prominent white photographer, Scurlock opened his studio in a bustling black neighborhood in northwest Washington. His sons later joined, learning their father’s signature style — the “Scurlock look,” which used soft focus, retouching, overhead and strobe lighting and careful positioning of a subject’s face and body to create flattering profiles.

Mamie Fearing Scurlock, Addison’s wife, managed the studio’s business and finances.

The exhibit shows the Scurlocks’ many images of families, weddings, businesses, graduations and social groups through nearly a century. The famous also made up their clientele. Portraits of prominent black figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and jazz great Duke Ellington line the exhibition’s walls.

The photos speak of a black community that blossomed in the face of adversity. A panoramic shot shows dapper crowds near a carnival ride at Suburban Gardens Amusement Park, created in northeast Washington after black people were barred from Glen Echo Park in Maryland. (The Suburban Gardens park closed in 1940.)