Two things distinguished Scurlock from VanDerZee. The first was that Scurlock was indeed an artist, in the purest sense of the word, as a photographer and as a photo finisher. The second was that, outside of the Black middle- and upper-middle class and the Howard University community which made up the bulk of his client base, Scurlock was largely unheralded and unknown. Yet for Washington, D.C., it was Scurlock Studios, which, under the talents of founder Addison N. Scurlock and sons Robert and George, served for over eighty years as the pre-eminent place of photographic business for D.C.'s Black community, and, for most of those years, the official photographers for Howard University.2

     Before I go into detail about the Scurlock Studios, I need to touch on the history of photography itself, it's evolution in the District of Columbia, and on the way historians of photography have completely, almost blissfully, ignored the presence and the contributions of the Black photographer.

     Scholars usually agree that photography evolved almost simultaneously in 1839 out of the experimentation of England's William Henry Fox Talbot and France's Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who arrived independently at photographic processes for permanently imprinting a latent camera-image on photo-sensitive material. Daguerre's method, which used sheets of tin covered with an emulsion of light-sensitive chemicals, was a slow, pains-taking, difficult to master process which required the use of lethally dangerous chemicals to develop, yet the resultant images, known as "daguerreotypes", became wildly popular. Talbot's method, while less satisfying and slow to catch on, proved to be the precursor of the reproducible negative-and-paper photographic processes we use today, and would eventually, by the 1870's, overtake the daguerreotype as the preferred method of photography.3

     Early practitioners of daguerreotype in this country included painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, Matthew Brady, perhaps most famous for his Civil War photographs, and Washington D.C.’s first practicing daguerreotypist, John Plumbe.4

     This is not to suggest that Addison Scurlock was the first African-American commercial photographer in Washington, D.C. Donna M. Wells, Prints and Photographs Librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, has identified no fewer than ten in the District of Columbia from Census records and city directories from the nineteenth century alone.5 Deborah Willis, noted authority on African-American photographers, has identified scores of others throughout the United States dating back to 1843.6 Wells states that John B. Washington, described as a daguerreotypist in the 1860 U.S. Census, was likely the first working Black photographer in the District, and Daniel Freeman the first to own his own studio, although the 1885 date is in dispute.


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November 2000