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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Scurlock Look

What exactly is the Scurlock look? Well, I have been trying to understand that for about fifty years.   As a boy I would stand and admire the portraits in the 9th & U Street Scurlock Photography Studio window with amazement. Back then, I missed my streetcar connection routinely because of my daily fascination with the images in those windows. When asked by my kindergarten teacher why I was late, I simply did not possess the vocabulary to describe the experience. Today, I am a MFA graduate of Howard University specializing in Photography and Electronic Studio. I am convinced that my encounters with the “Scurlock Look” are why photography is my passion.

This summer I interned at the Smithsonian Institute assigned to the Scurlock Studio Records collection under the tutelage of David Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photography for the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. While working on the collection I had the pleasure and the privilege of examining images “up close and personal” and in this blog will attempt to answer the question, what exactly is the “Scurlock Look”? But for now, let me simply say that the ”Scurlock Look” is an amalgamation of posing styles, distinctive lighting techniques, and amazing artistic retouching skills that round out these unmistakable works of photographic art.

For most of the twentieth century the “Scurlock Look” defined black social status within the Nation’s Capitol. The photographic blueprint of the “Scurlock Look” included soft, directional Rembrandt-like lighting, yet the subject’s skin appeared flawless; smooth, velvet-like, and soft to the touch. Their posing techniques left the viewer wondering if the portrait was of some famous person that you never heard of. They always managed to convey a sense of dignity and refinement with each photographic opportunity, whether in studio or on location. Topping it all off were their exquisite and artistic retouching skills. There were no crow’s feet; laugh lines and forehead creases had all been eased, eliminating all evidence of the stressful lives that accompanied most customers.

Addison Scurlock, the patriarch and founder of the studio in 1905 in the basement of his mother’s home, was a very demanding taskmaster and he perfected the “Scurlock Look.” This is evident in the numerous portraits of Howard University students, faculty, and Washington socialites that led to the establishment of the 9th & U Street location in 1911. Most notably, the images of African American legends such as Booker T.Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Madame Evanti, General Benjamin O. Davis, Mary Church Terrell, and of course Duke Ellington provided examples that his sons George and Robert worked diligently to emulate. The level of quality left behind as their father’s legacy still reigns supreme today even in the mists of the Digital Age.

But why is any of this relevant today? Aren’t there other fabulous photographs being made by other photographers who understand and can control all aspects of the creative photographic process? Of course, others have made and will continue to make wonderful works of photographic art. Yet, for me the Scurlocks’ photographic greatness still inspires me with awe. When I am confronted with the “Scurlock Look,” my eyes widen and a smile instantly begins to spread across my face. Combine that with an overwhelming sense of pride that starts to swell within me and then you might begin to understand why their photography is so important to me.

These feelings come from a sense of camaraderie with the subjects of their work. Because I am an African American, a native Washingtonian, A graduate of Howard University and the recipient of the 2010 George H. Scurlock Commercial Photography Award, with thirty years of experience that included personal and professional interactions with Robert Scurlock, I feel a shared legacy with these images. It seems as though I am looking through my own family’s photograph album filled with images of my relatives and ancestors. And due to my photographic experiences I have a deeper appreciation of the effort required to create such exemplary imagery.

The Scurlock Studio Records collection presents an entire portfolio of images of those who came before me, standing tall and proud as a testimony to their victory over racial oppression and discrimination—presenting visual proof that, in fact, it was actually Jim Crow who was in the end forced to take the seat in the back of the bus, because it proved ineffective at weakening the African American resolve to be included and treated fairly. African Americans are a proud people with a rich history and their own aspirations for greatness that deserve recognition.

The African American experience clearly must be woven into the American historical fabric in its rightful place and images of African Americans presented with dignity and respect because they too are Americans. Addison Scurlock and his sons George and Robert understood that necessity and devoted their lives to documenting these American stories with extraordinary images of the Black American Community.

Therefore, since photography can be defined as the process of writing with light, the African American Story in Washington, DC, the Nation’s Capitol, is the “Scurlock Look.”

Rich Green, Intern, Archives Center

Posted by David Haberstich, Archives Center, National Museum of American History


  1. Very informative and intensely interesting. I am a great fan of Spurlock and other AA photographers of that era. Their work tells the story of people, and define art and culture.

  2. I knew Robert Scurlock and bought a drum dryer from the Scurlock lab. I am willing to donate it to your museum.

    oggi ogburn

  3. Rich, I reallly enjoyed your explanation of the "Scurlock Look." Your explanation of the technical and social aspects of that "look" is most enlightening. Thanks.