Art, Politics & Society

The Scurlock Studio: How a team of father and sons empowered a community through photography

While the history taught in school was almost devoid of photographers of color, the reality is that many African American photographers had successful photography studios across America. One of these successful studios was established by Addison Scurlock, one of the go-to photographers by African Americans in Washington D.C in the early 20th century. After apprenticing with a white photographer named Moses Rice, he started a small photo studio from his parents’ house and advertised his business by putting some of his best photographs on the window. Seeing the photographs Scurlock created, many in the community began seeking out his service to create glamorized portraits of themselves and their loved ones.

Addison Scurlock, Portrait of Bishop "Sweet Daddy" Grace, undated. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution.

Through word of mouth in the African American community of the time, Scurlock was sought after by many people who wanted to take power over the creation of their own image. At this time, many white Americans were only aware of the African American communities through the racist caricatures portrayed in minstrel shows that were popular at the time. When seeing just what Scurlock can do, the African American men and women desired to create an image of themselves that was regal and dignified. In other words, the complete opposite of the minstrel caricature.

He developed what would become known as the Scurlock Look, a signature style that manipulated the lighting, posing, and post-production to create a dignified and sophisticated portrait. Thanks to this, Scurlock had the opportunity to take portraits of some of the biggest African American figures of the time, like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Archie Alexander, Billy Eckstine, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lillian Evanti, and Sterling Brown. He also photographed President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. With the help of his wife Mamie Scurlock, who handles the business side of things, the Scurlock Studio became one of the most prominent photography studios in Washington D.C.

Scurlock Studio, Photo of Addison and Mamie Scurlock in the reception area of the studio, ca. 1950s. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution.

But Scurlock would become known for more than the portraits that defined the late 19th century. 

With the advancement of photography, Scurlock became one of the first photographers to take the camera outside the studio and documented the lives happening around him. He became the first photographer to document the importance of the lives of African Americans. His documentary ranged from the daily lives of businesses around him to the protests and rallies happening in D.C. He also documented weddings, celebrations, parties, and even the mundane business of an insurance company. 

Addison Scurlock, Federal Life Insurance office, 1938. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution.

The Scurlock Studio did not die with the passing of Scurlock in 1964. His business and legacy were inherited by his two sons, George and Robert Scurlock. They were taught the signature Scurlock Look and bought the Scurlock Studio from their father before his passing. They continued the spirit of the senior Scurlock, continuing both the business side of photography while still active in the civil rights movements. In between taking wedding photographs and portraits, the brothers also captured important moments in history. Under his father’s tutelage, Robert captured one of the most iconic images associated with the Scurlocks, a photograph of Marian Anderson singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial after being refused the stage at the Constitution Hall.

Robert Scurlock, Marian Anderson singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, April 3, 1939. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution

Long after Addison Scurlock’s passing, more than 250,000 negatives and 10,000 prints, plus cameras and other equipment — also known as the Scurlock Studio Collection — entered the Smithsonian Institute’s archives in 1997. A digital archive of thousands of the Scurlocks’ photographs can be accessed on the Smithsonian’s virtual archive. The collection serves as a reminder of the important historical significance of the African American photographers and how they both shaped and used photography to empower their community.

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