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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Robert Scurlock's Street Scenes of Black Washington

During my time looking through the many photographs that comprise the Scurlock Studio Records collection in the NMAH Archives Center, one of my colleagues, Aysha Preston, also a research fellow, showed me a set of photographs Robert Scurlock took of seemingly candid scenes of young black children playing in the streets of Washington D.C. My interest in street photography drew me to these images, ranging from depictions of children playing in the water, to four black boys posing in front of a graffiti-filled cement wall. Although my area of focus for my dissertation research is in adult-age black men living in America’s urban environments, Robert Scurlock’s photographs encouraged me to think about the portrayal of black childhood in places of urban decay. The photographs beg the viewer to think about the kinds of effects living in disadvantaged neighborhoods can bear on those who are still in the process of growing and learning about themselves and their relationship to the world. The children Scurlock captures in this series might not have had a full understanding of the complex systems around them that played a role in their families’ hardships.
1.  Robert S. Scurlock.  Untitled, Washington, D.C., ca. 1970.  Chromogenic print.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
What these photographs taught me was the dynamism of the Scurlock Collection. While the collection is illustrative of the important racial uplift projects that advanced civil rights for blacks—particularly those of the early 20th century—Robert Scurlock’s street photography partakes in a somewhat different agenda: to display the harsh realities of black life.
2.  Robert S. Scurlock.  Untitled, Washington, D.C., ca. 1970.  Chromogenic pirnt.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

In the images Addison Scurlock’s son captures, black children are not propped and dressed up for a studio portrait like in Figure 3. Contrarily, as Figure 2 shows, the children are captured right in the middle of their mundane activities. An important research question I had while examining this photograph was the purpose behind Robert Scurlock’s artistic choice to capture scenes of urban decay through the experiences of black children. In Figure 2, four small black boys are playing with several dogs right in the middle of trash. The boys are in front of a row of dilapidated houses. The composition of the photograph heightens the dreary images of the rowhomes—my focus started at the foreground of the photograph and jumped back from house to house. Each house in the photograph is in disrepair, and the viewer is almost overwhelmed by the endless rows of homes in obvious states of decay. Your eyes travel from the cheerful, curious boys to the vanishing point where the two lines of row houses meet; your eyes are not given a break from the pattern of squalor in the image.

Addison N. Scurlock, photographer.  Cellulose acetate photonegative.  Undated but probably ca. 1910-1920.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The houses, combined with the trash and the seemingly wet streets, make the landscape very unsettling to observe. As a viewer, you are almost disgusted by what you see, particularly how the trash seems to encircle the boys and the dogs they are playing with. What heightens this discomfort for me as a viewer is the juxtaposition of the landscape with the cheerful pose of the boy in the center of the group, wearing a bright orange shirt. The shirt’s color grabs the viewer’s attention, along with his playful display of arm muscles.

As a viewer, I wonder what was going through the mind of these four boys as they posed before Robert Scurlock’s camera. They seem unabashed as they stand innocently with their dogs, despite the scenes of abandonment that encircle them. As I continue looking at the photographs, I have yet to reach a conclusion about the message being conveyed: are these images of sadness, meant to garner pity for the black underclass? Or is Scurlock capturing the paradox that is deeply embedded in black culture, strength amidst suffering? At this point, I see the interplay of both of narratives in these street photographs.

Lucy Mensah
Graduate Fellow, National Museum of American History

Ph.D. Candidate, English, Vanderbilt University
Graduate Fellow, NMAH Archives Center

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