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Friday, February 11, 2011


The Scurlock photographers in their studio, 1951.  Addison N. Scurlock
stands between his sons, George and Robert.
Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1911-1994, Archives Center.

In summer 2010, I served as an intern in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History and devoted most of my time to the Scurlock Studio Records—the archive of an African American studio whose business spanned most of the twentieth century. My responsibilities included sorting and re-housing prints and negatives, and scanning negatives. While performing this work I occasionally came across images that I thought had a special significance and would bring them to the attention of my supervisor, David Haberstich, the Archives Center’s curator of photography. Sometimes this activity would spin off into another direction and I would conduct a little side research.

For example, while re-housing a group of 8” x 10” black-and-white negatives, I noticed a particular aberration on the base side of the negatives. One negative, a portrait of Mr. Jos. E. Snowden, appeared to have interesting patterns in locations that enhanced the appearance of the portrait.  I was sure it was not the common “vinegar syndrome” that corrodes vintage acetate negatives because it did not have the distinctive odor. David thought it was reticulation. I disagreed, pointing out that reticulation was usually caused by rapid changes in the temperature of solutions during development, which would have affected the entire negative surface, not just a portion. He suggested that I look for another explanation by performing a scan test.

At first glance it appeared that the base of the film was shrinking, causing the affected area of the emulsion to resemble scrambled eggs. Upon closer study of this group of negatives, I thought it was be some sort of patterned diffusion technique that Addison Scurlock may have used to retouch the negatives before printing. I surmised that he may have been using a patterned roller to make these impressions in the areas that needed retouching. The patterns were in the areas where he would have retouched his negatives anyway, so I thought I had discovered one of his secret techniques. However, when I scanned the negative at a high resolution (450 dpi), I realized that the image was not improved by this technique and perhaps this phenomenon was reticulation after all--a chemically-based reticulation possibly caused by a reaction to the retouching agent that was used to add “tooth” to the smooth surface of the negative emulsion, which was required to make the retouching pencil adhere to the film.  These marks of the retouching pencil modify the light passing through the negatives and help to smooth out the crows’ feet, laugh lines, and forehead creases that were seldom seen in the Scurlock Studio work, prompting me to use the phrase “The Scurlock Look” to describe the resultiant smooth skin of their portrait subjects.

This freedom to examine the collection and make observations, to prove or disprove theories about techniques, led to many exciting days of learning and discovery. I felt as if I were being given a second chance to apprentice in their studio. The first opportunity was never afforded to me although I sought it several times while Robert Scurlock was still alive. David also enjoyed our discoveries and encouraged me to dig deeper whenever I had theories or concerns. This free flow of ideas led to an invitation to contribute my findings to a chapter on the technical aspects of the “Scurlock Look” as part of David’s book on the Scurlock collection.

While researching the “Scurlock Look,” David and I took a field trip to Highland Beach to meet Herbert Scurlock, the nephew of Addison, the last surviving member of his generation, and quite a likeable gentleman. We had a marvelous time as he recalled little-known facts about the Scurlock Studio. For example, Addison did not approve of his sons George and Robert opening The Capitol School of Photography, a photography school which operated out of the studio from 1948 to 1952. Addison felt that training other photographers would have a detrimental effect on the family business. They enjoyed a lack of competition in the early days of the studio and Addison wanted to keep it that way! He was certain that these newly trained photographers would become competitors one day, and his concerns caused friction in the family.

Addison was probably right about his competition concerns because some Capitol School of Photography students became very good photographers. One of the most famous students was Jacqueline Bouvier, who later became the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. As a result of her training, she was able to work for the Washington-Times Herald as a photographer/reporter in 1952. Her column was the “Inquiring Camera Girl.”

Another photographer who studied at the school was Ellsworth Davis. Mr. Davis attended the Capitol School of Photography while working as a darkroom technician at the U.S. State Department. Between 1954 and 1961 he worked as a photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering not only events within the Black community, but also Capitol Hill and the White House. Mr. Davis retired from The Washington Post in 1991 after 30 years, and was the second black photographer admitted into the White House News Photographer's Association during that time.

Other alumni of the school had promising careers, notably William Scott, Head Photographer at the State Department; Fred Harris, owner of Fred Harris Photography; and Dwight Keith, another State Department photographer/darkroom-technician-turned-freelancer. According to Theodore Gaffney, a freelance photographer in the Washington area who remembered these photographers and was interviewed for this blog, “All of these guys did weddings, portraits of friends and family members, and took on freelance assignments and surely their activities must have impacted the potential sales figures of the Scurlock Studio.”

During our visit to Herbert Scurlock’s home he also shared with us the tremendous sense of pride he felt when his Uncle Addison photographed the graduating senior class at Dunbar High School, where he was a member of the JROTC. He recalled that his popularity skyrocketed because all the girls were trying to get free pictures and suddenly “I was the coolest cat in the whole school and the girls really went for my uniform too.”

He also shared how he operated the process camera that belonged to the Murray Brothers Printing Company next door to the studio on U Street. Murray owned the camera, but it was set up in the basement of the liquor store across the street from the studio. I could not help thinking that the presence of a high-quality copy camera in the basement of a liquor store in the heart of a black neighborhood might suggest stereotypes about counterfeiters. Herbert joked about it but reassured us: “It was all on the up and up; back in those days black businesses worked closely with each other to cut expenses”.

I loved meeting Herbert and listening to his recollections about the good old days in Washington. He enjoyed having visitors and a reason to recall the past. On that particular day I was the bearer of the sad news that Dr. Burke (Mickey) Syphax had died the evening before at Howard University Hospital. Herbert remembered Mickey from the old neighborhood at 5th and T Streets. He recalled that he played tennis and was on Howard University’s basketball team when they won a divisional championship in 1932. He said Dr. Syphax and his family were regular customers at the studio and he must have been about a hundred years old. He was in fact ninety-nine when he died. I was amazed by Herbert’s recollections and was honored to have been the recipient of such a rich oral history lesson.

I shared some of my own family connections and that I remembered Dr. Syphax as the “Black Father Knows Best” because he was everybody’s ideal black father figure. “Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons” were popular television shows from the 1950s and 1960s which conveyed positive concepts of fathers as role models, but with all-white casts. Dr. Syphax had three sons too, Michael, Gregory, and Steve. The Syphax family was the quintessential African American family, long before the days of Bill Cosby’s “Dr. Huxtable”.

While we were all undergraduates at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, I shared an apartment with Gregory, Steve, and their girlfriends, Vicky and Marilyn--who are each a Mrs. Syphax today! Steve and my brother Robert were classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School and my younger brother Rodger married Michael’s sister-in-law. My own father recalled Mickey from their boyhood back in the old neighborhood. My dad had three sons too, and because of that, I always felt we had a close family bond. In fact, one of the Syphax women married a Richard Green in the early 1800s. Perhaps that helps explain why I have always looked upon them all as my brothers.

Every day when I entered the office this summer at the Smithsonian, I came face to face with “Mickey’s” portrait on a poster of the Howard University Chiefs of Surgeons. The Scurlock Studio produced that portrait. It was hanging on the wall on my first day at the Archives Center. When I saw “Mickey” smiling back at me, I felt like I was embarking on my internship with his blessings. Little did I know that his time on earth was close to the end. He was a great man and so was Addison Scurlock, and their lives have left a proud legacy for Black Americans to emulate. Because of Dr. Syphax, hundreds of black surgeons and thousands of doctors were trained at Howard University, and thanks to Addison Scurlock we have thousands of photographs to document the multitude of black accomplishments at Howard University, in the classrooms, on the sports fields, and elsewhere. I am extremely proud to be a part of the legacy of Howard University and the Black Community within the nation’s capital.

Richard Green, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Richard Green is a photographer who received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University in 2010 and was the recipient of the George H. Scurlock Memorial Scholarship for Commercial Photography. He is currently a volunteer at the Archives Center.  He teaches Computers in the Arts in the Electronic Studio Department within the Fine Arts Division of the  College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.

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