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Monday, March 1, 2021

Scurlock Photographs, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the NMAH Archives Center, Part 2

By David Haberstich 

The previous post described Robert Scurlock's unsuccessful attempts to publish or exhibit photographs by his father, Addison N. Scurlock, and the Scurlock Studio. This happy ending of the story is offered as an extension of  Black History Month into the first few days of March.

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. Negative by Addison N. Scurlock, 1943.
Later print by Robert S. Scurlock. 14" x 11". Scurlock Studio Records, NMAH Archives Center.

Harry Lunn, the Corcoran Exhibition, and Jackie Onassis

Robert finally found an advocate in Harry H. Lunn, Jr., the charismatic and successful dealer of photographic art based in Washington. Lunn’s gallery, which flourished in several locations, was the premier gallery at a time when there were several other art dealers in Washington who sold photographs exclusively, riding the crest of the first few years of the new photography boom, which I date from 1967. Many historians credit Lunn as the single most important force in establishing photography as a collectible commodity as well as a serious field of academic study. Lunn, Kathleen Ewing, Marie Martin, Jo Tartt, and the Washington Gallery of Photography, operated by Byron and Mary Schumaker, were among the dealers who regularly exhibited and sold “vintage” and contemporary photography, at steadily increasing prices.  It was Lunn’s business acumen which finally helped to make Ansel Adams rich after decades of work as America’s best-known landscape photographer. At some point Robert Scurlock apparently approached Lunn, probably hoping the dealer would help to sell Scurlock photographs. I have found no evidence that Lunn ever sold or exhibited Scurlock photographs, but he encouraged and advised Robert in his quest for recognition. This was especially important for Robert, who was enmeshed in the world of commercial photography and apparently was unaware of the parallel world of contemporary photographic art, which was making gigantic inroads among art collectors and scholars and into museum collections. Despite Robert’s early interest in expanding his horizons beyond the studio-based, insular field of portrait and commercial photography by working as a photojournalist, he was a novice in approaching the new “art” photography and its norms, customs, and cast of influential characters. He wrote two letters on May 13, 1975, in which he noted that Lunn had suggested contacts. He wrote to Douglas Morgan of Morgan & Morgan, a well-known publisher of art photography books and technical texts. Apparently nothing came of this effort, although he met Morgan at a photographic conference and they discussed his proposal, as verified in his letter of September 30, 1975. His letter to Roy Slade, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, however, finally bore fruit within a remarkably short period. He noted that Lunn had specifically suggested that an exhibition of Addison Scurlock’s work, especially his portraits of notable African Americans, could supplement an existing Bicentennial theme, already established by the Corcoran.   

Mid-Winter Assembly [of the NAACP], Baltimore, Maryland, 1912.
In the Corcoran exhibition and catalog, Robert Scurlock misidentified this photograph as "Formal Dance at Whitelaw Hotel, ca, 1923." Robert made a new 16" x 20" print for the exhibition from the original 8" x 10" glass plate negative. Scurlock Studio Records, NMAH Archives Center. 

With Slade’s blessing and enthusiastic support from the Corcoran’s chief curator, Jane Livingston (who was already especially interested in Black artists), and photography curator Frances Fralin, Robert arranged for an exhibition of his father’s photographs to begin in June 1976, as part of a series of “American Bicentennial” exhibitions sponsored by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Gallery previously had commissioned new work by eight noted (white) photographic artists of diverse styles as a Bicentennial theme. Apparently Lunn convinced the Corcoran curators to host an exhibition of Addison Scurlock’s photographs as an historical counterweight or adjunct to the new commissioned work. The actual arrangements seemed a little unusual, perhaps due to a tight schedule, with Robert himself ordering the printing of the catalog by Colortone Creative Printing on March 17, 1976. Fifteen “vintage” prints by Addison’s hand were the core of the exhibition, while Robert made more than one hundred new prints from his father’s negatives.

Robert now renewed his efforts to get a full-fledged book published in connection with the exhibition, and on March 3, 1976, wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Viking Press in hopes that she would help her mentor from years ago. One of the Scurlock family’s favorite anecdotes concerns Jacqueline Bouvier’s short-term study at the Capitol School of Photography, which Robert and George managed out of the studio from 1948 to 1952. Citing her brief tenure as a student at the school, he wrote:

“Dear Mrs. Onassis,

“[It’s] been a long time but I presume you remember your former teacher of photography. (Jackie Bouvier – Times Herald days) Like many, I’ve followed your career very closely, and [it’s] nice to know that you are back in America and working for Viking Press. I would like to outline a coming event that is very important to me, and if possible, enlist your aid.

“This summer, The Corcoran Gallery will open an exhibit of 125 or so of my father’s photographs. He was a very skillful Camera Artist and probably the most important Black Photographer in the country. This will be a memorial exhibit and will include his portrait studies of people like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois [sic], Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Mary Bethune, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen and many others.

“Publishing a photographic book of this material is one of my objectives, and in discussing the plans with Jane Livingston, Curator of the Corcoran, the thought occurred that just possibly Viking might be in a position to publish a catalog for us. We realize that time is very short since the exhibition is due for opening in mid-June, however it will be up most of the summer.”

I love the line, “Like many, I’ve followed your career very closely…” We don’t know how Jacqueline Onassis reacted to it—if she saw it. It might have provided a chuckle or two. This request for a major publisher to produce an exhibition catalogue or monograph on only a few months’ notice was unrealistic—even as a personal favor. An assistant at Viking Press wrote Robert to advise that scheduling a book to coincide with the exhibition was impossible. However, there was indeed a modest booklet produced by the Corcoran, basically an illustrated checklist with introductory text (by the reliable Michael Winston), almost identical in format to the publications which accompanied the exhibitions of the eight (white) photographers from whom new work had been commissioned, and identifying the Scurlock exhibition as a component of the Corcoran’s Bicentennial series, “The Nation’s Capital in Photographs, 1976.” Ironically, a copy of this free booklet was recently advertised online at a price of nearly one thousand dollars.

Adopting a more modest goal, on June 21, 1976, Robert wrote to the editor of Studio Light, a Kodak publication, suggesting a story on the exhibition. On July 15 he sent a copy of the 24-page catalog to Cassie Furgurson at Time magazine, requesting a story. On July 26 he wrote to inform African American Congressman Charles Rangel about the exhibition, seeking assistance for publicity. Unfortunately, these efforts did not pay off. 

However, there were gratifying outside contributions toward the exhibition. Robert wrote to the Independence Federal Savings & Loan Association on July 28 to thank “Mr. Fitzgerald” for “financial support given to the Corcoran gallery” in mounting the exhibition. The exhibition included a variety of subjects, but concentrated on portraits of African American leaders of international, national, and local renown. It even included several of his photographs of Black entertainers wearing blackface (represented in the catalog), which apparently were not considered controversial at the time.

Picnic Group, Highland Beach, Md. Original negative by Addison N. Scurlock, ca. 1931-1932.
New print for Corcoran exhibition by Robert S. Scurlock, ca. 1976.
Scurlock Studio Records, NMAH Archives Center.

One of the most influential and well-known American curators of photography saw the exhibition and expressed interest in acquiring Addison’s work for her museum. On September 24, Robert wrote to Anne Tucker at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, offering to sell her prints at $150.00 each, and suggesting the possibility of showing the exhibition in Houston. Although the show did not travel to Houston, Tucker was among the new wave of eager young photography curators to be hired by major art museums, so the subsequent sale represented a coup for Robert.  

Jane Livingston and Frances Fralin, as well as later dedicated Corcoran photography curators, demonstrated their continuing interest in Black photographers through many other exhibitions and acquisitions. For example, just a year after the Scurlock show, the Corcoran sponsored “Black Photographers in America” from July 30-Aug. 31, 1977. While the Smithsonian Institution was arguably the first American museum to collect and exhibit photographs as works of art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s photography exhibitions date from the early twentieth century, and the museum maintained a vigorous, internationally known photography exhibition and acquisitions program until the Corcoran’s sad demise in 2014, its collections eventually dispersed to other museums. After teaching the history of photography in the Corcoran College of Art for two years, with friends among Corcoran teachers and curators, I was deeply disappointed by that unfortunate turn of events. We can’t blame a pandemic for the permanent closing of that illustrious museum. There is some solace in knowing that the Corcoran’s ground-breaking exhibition of Addison Scurlock’s work ultimately became a component of the Archives Center’s Scurlock collection. Kudos to Jane Livingston and the late Frances Fralin and Harry Lunn for their foresight and dedication in helping to bring Addison Scurlock, a major Black photographer and chronicler of Washington’s African American history, to the attention of photographic historians and the general public.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center

National Museum of American History



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