Portrait photographer documented African-American luminaries of his time

In this series, Lagniappe presents a different work each week from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, with commentary from a curator.

Addison Scurlock (American, 1883-1964) was one of the most prolific and important African American portrait photographers in the 20th century, and his eponymous studio endured in Washington, D.C., for approximately 90 years.

Born in North Carolina, Scurlock moved to Washington at 17. Scurlock’s studio operated on U Street, one of the most active Black business sectors in the capital city. He developed a signature visual style for his portraiture, which came to be known colloquially as “the Scurlock Look.” His portraits were notable for their precise posing, soft focus, shallow depth of field, and delicate lighting. In addition to studio portraits, the Scurlock Studio had standing contracts with a number of important institutions, like Howard University, and photographed African American luminaries and celebrities whenever they came to Washington.

Made during the first year that Scurlock opened his commercial studio, this photograph portended a decadeslong relationship with Howard University. Scurlock made class portraits for nearly every department in the school, and at events like graduations and sports games. Scurlock likely felt a special kinship for this group of students in Howard’s Commercial College, whose motto was “Business is the Salt of Life.”

At the time, Scurlock was a member of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, and spoke publicly about using his studio to not only achieve personal success, but also as a model for others. Making composite photographs like this one was an important part of that success, and making this one would not have been a quick exercise.

After taking 16 individual portraits (and one photo of the Howard campus) and printing them, those photographs were affixed to a decorative mat drawn by artist Horace G. Anderson (American, 1885-1971). Scurlock then rephotographed the whole thing, so that it could be printed as one gelatin silver print, as many times as he thought he could sell it.

This and other photographs by Addison Scurlock photographs will be on view at NOMA as part of the exhibition “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” from Sept. 16 through Jan. 8.

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