When Addison Scurlock founded Scurlock Studios in 1904, he bequeathed a legacy to Washington, D.C. that would immortalize and celebrate those he photographed for ninety years and that continues, largely unheralded, to this day. There are certainly more well-known African-American photographers, most of whom, like Scurlock, distinguished themselves in both their contributions to their communities and to the art of photography. Addison Scurlock, however, never enjoyed in his lifetime the reputation his work deserved, and it is my intention to shed some light on the singular contributions he made through his studio and through the work of his sons, Robert and George.
My intent is not to argue about who had the greater impact, or about whose celebrity was more richly deserved. My contention is that, but for the small number of individuals whom fate or luck or serendipity has deigned to make famous, who but for the grace of God would have labored on in similar anonymity in pursuit of their muse (if not their very livelihood) --- several African-American photographers were as deserving of the spotlight, not the least of whom was Addison Scurlock.
Who could begrudge Gordon Parks the fame that befell him so early? Certainly, the massive retrospective of his work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art made a sound case for Parks as one of the best photographers of any color in history.1
The vast majority of Black photographers, however, carried on in quiet anonymity, more content with illuminating their subjects than themselves. Every community had its documentarian, its photographic Boswell, the keeper of the visual memory of the community in all its quotidian ordinariness and occasional flashes of grandeur and moment. New York City had several, including James VanDerZee. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's landmark (and controversial) 1968 show "Harlem on My Mind" would hardly have been possible without the unforgettable contribution of VanDerZee's photographs, nor would his name be the near-household word it is today without the exhibit. For the Black community of Washington, D.C., however, it was Addison Scurlock and his Scurlock Studios.