Scurlock Studio: Theatre of Desire

Visual Culture Studies 2.0

Juliette Harris

George Scurlock studio.  Photo: Smithsonian Institution collection Every urban African American community had one: an artist in residence who portrayed the people in the ways that they envisioned themselves, in contradistinction to the mocking caricatures produced by others. These community photogaphers included James Van der Zee in Harlem, P. H. Polk in Tuskegee, Charles "Teenie" Harris in Pittsburgh and the Browns in Richmond.

One such early photographer was artist Henry O. Tanner. In the late 1880s, the Philadelphia artist learned photography while he was teaching at Clark University and he opened a photography studio in the Atlanta community.  Probably because of Tanner's outsider status (he was from Philadelphia) and reticent personality, not a lack of skill, the Tanner photography studio failed.  Some other more outgoing and enterprising young, black Atlantan also must have learned photography and cornered the city's early African American market for it.

For 80 years, George Scurlock, then his son, manufactured the dreams of black Washington DC in sepia tones and then glossy black and white.  The Scurlock Studio on U Street was the “theatre of desire” as photo historian Deborah Willis would say, quoting historian Alan Tractenburg — a place where black people projected idyllic images for themselves during a Jim Crow era.  From the high falutin to the hoi polloi — opera singer Madame Lilian Avanti portraits to elementary school class pictures — these cherished records of community life were developed and printed on the site.  Scurlock became the go-to shop for all walks of life in the black world of D.C. — as much a must-do as The Pig n Pit, Ben's Chili Bowl or Lincoln Theatre on the U Street corridor of by gone days.