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Monday, February 22, 2021

Scurlock Photographs, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the NMAH Archives Center, Part 1

By David Haberstich

Every February when I think of Black History Month, I naturally think about one of the Archives Center’s premier collections, the Scurlock Studio Records. This collection contains the life’s work of the principals of this Black-owned Washington photography studio, founder Addison N. Scurlock (1883-1964) and his sons Robert (1916-1994) and George (1919-2005). In February 2020 I gave a brief lecture about the collection at a Black History Month social event sponsored by a large Washington law firm, at the invitation of a Scurlock relative on the firm’s staff. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my last in-person lecture (and social event) before COVID-19 closed the Smithsonian and disrupted my social life, along with nearly everyone else’s.

In my talk about Scurlock photographs, I thanked my hosts for the invitation to their lovely party, but mused about another important party that I had missed in 1976, the first year in which Black History Month was observed officially, as recognized by President Gerald Ford. Had I attended that earlier event, an exhibition opening at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, I could have met Robert Scurlock, as well as the famed African-American New York photographer, James Van Der Zee. (Some call Addison Scurlock Washington’s Van Der Zee, but I like to call Van Der Zee New York’s Scurlock.) I met Mr. Van Der Zee on a later occasion, but unfortunately I never met Robert. I came to know his younger brother George quite well, however, along with other Scurlock relatives.

Typical Scurlock Studio banquet photograph, dinner for Armond W. Scott, 1935.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

The Corcoran exhibition, entitled “The Historic Photographs of Addison N. Scurlock,” ran from June 19 to Aug. 29, 1976. When the National Museum of American History acquired the Scurlock collection almost twenty years later, the entire Corcoran exhibition, having been returned to the studio, was part of the archive. These photographs, conveniently still framed for subsequent displays, were shown in several small exhibitions in the National Museum of American History over the years, as well as in Deborah Willis’s major exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building, “Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties,” in 1996. Correspondence in the business records of the Scurlock Studio Records reveal the story behind the historic Corcoran exhibition of 1976.

A Quest for Recognition 

Addison Scurlock sold the business to his sons before his death in 1964. In the early 1970s Robert became concerned about the future of the Scurlock family business and its photographic archive. As he began to confront his own mortality, his brother George’s intention to retire, and the fact that there were no family members to carry on the Scurlock business, it seemed likely that the Scurlock Studio and its later iteration as CustomCraft might die with him. Robert had no children, and brother George’s children had evinced little interest in operating the studio enterprise. Years earlier, Robert had rebuffed the efforts of two young relatives to gain employment at the studio on the grounds that they “hadn’t paid their dues” as photographers. 

Left to right: George, Addison, and Robert Scurlock in their studio, ca. 1948.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Furthermore, he recognized the classic, enduring quality of his father’s early work, in contrast with his own bread-and-butter portraiture and photojournalism, and was determined to find ways to revive and increase public awareness of Addison’s pioneering photographs. Robert’s eventual success in this quest was preceded by a flurry of activity and disappointing failures. Correspondence in the business papers of the Scurlock Studio Records documents his unsuccessful, frustrating attempts to highlight his father’s work through publications, especially a book reproducing Addison’s finest, most iconic photographs, but ultimately he managed to realize his dream of a major exhibition to honor his father’s work.

Attempting to find a publisher for the book he envisioned, Robert submitted pictures to Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. An acknowledgment from Alison M. Bond (August 4, 1970) indicated that she would consider the project, and agreed to contact famed African American photographer Gordon Parks, whom Robert had asked to write a foreword for the proposed monograph. He also suggested that Michael Winston of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center could write the text. He telephoned Art Editor Marlayna Franklin in March 1970, as indicated in her letter of April 1. There ensued a bustle of correspondence with Holt, Rinehart and Winston about the project, some of it suggesting that Robert had been erratic in following up on their contacts. Later Paul Anbinder, Executive Editor at Harry N. Abrams, Inc., mentioned Robert’s May 1970 telephone conversation about a book proposal in his letter of May 27, 1970.  On June 9, 1970, however, Anbinder wrote that “the project does not seem suitable” for the Abrams “program.” Alison M. Bond sent Robert a final rejection letter on December 18, 1970, returning the photographs and asserting that the proposed book would be too expensive to produce and that it “could well price itself out of the market.”

While Robert pursued his dream of a coffee-table monograph on his father, he also attempted to interest periodicals in publishing illustrated articles devoted to Addison’s work and/or his own. He contacted an English publication, Telegraph Magazine, on July 13, 1970, suggesting an article on Washington based on his own color transparencies, but editor John Ashby responded that they weren’t quite what he was seeking, while leaving the door open for further submissions (July 24, 1970).  Fred Schmidt, managing editor of The Professional Photographer, indicated that he was interested in doing an article on the CustomCraft business (June 17, 1971), but this did not materialize either.  

Further attempts to interest publishers in a book or articles similarly failed. To be fair, Robert’s letters to publishers were relatively weak inquiries, rather than detailed proposals, and they indicate his naivete about the book publishing business. In these files we can sense his growing frustration over what appeared to be an endangered legacy. Eventually he modified his strategy and included the book concept as a corollary to a more ambitious and potentially risky idea—a gallery in which to display his father’s photographs. The business files contain Robert’s twelve-page typescript entitled “Proposal for Establishment of the Scurlock Gallery of Photography.” In this stronger proposal, complete with a budget, he revealed another element of his aspirations—to honor his father Addison through a permanent exhibition of his work. Although the proposal is undated, it clearly was prepared in the early 1970s, after the establishment of the D.C. Commission on Bicentennial Programs.  Robert wrote: 

“Establishment of the gallery on the site of Mr. Scurlock’s first studio, 900 You [sic] Street, Northwest, would be a positive achievement in the inner city, making a definite contribution to the community, and increasing the opportunity for citizen appreciation of Black progress, past and present.  The gallery would operate on a non-profit basis with free admission to the general public.”

He further proposed that a satellite gallery be established at the same location to show the work of promising Black photographers from around the world; that a “Special Centennial [i.e., Bicentennial] Exhibition” be assembled at the National Portrait Gallery to honor eminent “Black Americans”; that associated traveling exhibitions, educational reproductions, filmstrips, and slide shows be prepared and distributed through educational channels; that a major publisher be sought to produce a “top quality” photography book for the 1976 Bicentennial; and that a special gallery be established for talented Black youths who wish to enter the field of photography, under his direction, with scholastic aid to be solicited from corporate America and major foundations. His proposed first-year budget for $78,400 included salaries for a director (himself), assistant director, and gallery assistant.

Although Robert used the word “Centennial” several times in his proposal, he clearly meant “Bicentennial,” as he was applying for 50% matching funds from the D.C. Commission on Bicentennial Programs. The funding request was denied. No evidence was presented to indicate that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was interested in an exhibition hailing the achievements of noted African Americans. Robert had connections with officials at the Gallery through his contract to photograph collection objects, such as paintings, but it isn’t clear if any discussions related to this idea occurred before he approached Marvin Sadik, then director of the National Portrait Gallery, to propose an exhibition of Addison’s portraits of important African American subjects, presumably as a Bicentennial project. In Sadik’s letter of May 12, 1975, the concept was turned down. Sadik wrote that he and his staff decided that “there simply are not enough photographs by your father of nationally noted personalities to make a viable exhibition.” This short-sighted judgment surely disappointed and rankled Robert on several different levels, as he undoubtedly felt that such an exhibition was sorely needed, not only to honor the photographer, but precisely to give recognition to the subjects and help make them “nationally noted.” It must have been a bitter pill to swallow. 

(To Be Continued)

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

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