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Robert H. McNeill
The three premier
Black photographers in Washington for
the first half of the 20th century were
Addison Scurlock, Robert
H. McNeill, and
Sam Lacy. Scurlock
was first on the scene and was an influence on McNeill and was probably most
famous for having a very prestigious studio in
Lacy was a pioneer sportswriter and later became a journalist and
renowned civil rights leader.
focuses on one of these pioneers---Robert H. McNeill.
In the 1930's and 40's, any time there was a political,
social, religious or community event in Washington's black community, Robert
H. McNeill was there to photograph it. ]
McNeill is to be admired for his stance in using
document social injustices and suffering versus simply taking pictures that
portrayed the images that were expected by his employment.
He was also an accomplished printer and his work was rich in blacks,
whites and shades of gray. The two major components of his work are his pictures
capturing life in the
District of Columbia
and his work as a
photographer for the
Works Progress Administration.
McNeill was born in 1917 and died earlier this year—May
27th of complications of diabetes.
He was the son of a physician and a school administrator.
He was educated at
and at the
New York Institute of Photography. What was extraordinary is that
he chose a profession in photography versus a more “noble” profession such
as one in medicine or education which was safer and much more common at that
time. As a photographer McNeill
is not universally known or considered a prominent photographer.
However, he is chosen for this paper because of his contribution to
documenting the history of
DC at a time there was tremendous migration to
Washington, DC of Blacks from the South.
He also chronicled major events and photographed Black celebrities of
this time as they visited the district.
Jesse Owens when he visited Howard
in 1937, Bishop Marcelino Manoel de Graca (better known as Daddy Grace), a
charismatic religious leader, and Marian Anderson.
His pictures of
Bill Bojangles Robinson at the
Earl Theatre had to be taken from the wings of
the theater because he was not allowed to purchase a ticket or sit in the
front of the theatre.His portraiture also includes Joe Louis, the great boxer, in a
softball uniform. In some
ways McNeill complements and contrasts another great photographer---Irving
Penn, born the same year but whose celebrity portraiture covered a vastly
different group of people.
McNeill documented pictures for Black newspapers that
otherwise may not have been recorded.
Events include Eleanor Roosevelt dedicating the Police Boys Club in
Washington’s Number Two Precinct in 1935, Mary Church Terrell Addressing
Members of the
National Association of Colored Women at Their Golden Jubilee
in 1946, Opening of the T Street Post Office in 1940 and National
Association of Colored Women Members March outside the White House to
Protest a Lynching in Georgia in 1946.
For part of his life McNeill was a government
photographer and was working as one 4 years before Gordon Parks, a much
better known Black photographer began working at the Farm Security
A major part of McNeill’s work was
The Negro in Virginia which was
sponsored by the commonwealth of Virginia and expected to show a more upbeat, “life is
good” vision of Blacks in Virginia
in the 1930. McNeill’s work
showed a more diverse and accurate depiction of life showing acute poverty
as well as some of the success.
A good number of the pictures also depicted Hampton Institute and the
education that was taking place there.
McNeill’s portfolio of pictures in Virginia includes
Car” 1938 were 4 black men are admiring their friend’s recent purchase of a
new car. It wonderfully
portrays the pride of the new owner.
“Sophie’s Alley, 1938 depicts the goings on in an alley where men are
huddled together playing cards while others are passing through.
The blacks, whites and shades of grays are beautiful.
His series “Longshoremen” show groups of men who appear to be
standing around looking for work.
They seem to be hard working men ready to work but some not employed.
Another interesting series is called “Employed and Unemployed” In all
of these photographs the richness of the blacks and whites are phenomenal.
“Boys Reading Comic Books” is part of McNeill’s
Washington DC collection.
This is a picture of 4 boys sitting on a bench mesmerized by some
comic books that they are reading.
It is hard to view it and determine whether it is posed or not.
The looks on their faces makes one believes that these boys are
really captivated by these comic books.
It is a great photo because it shows these boys in a very positive
light. They look like rough,
tough boys and their reading so intensely makes for a great picture.
All of his photos seem to be straight forward, not
overly posed. There are no
gimmicks. The printing is
wonderful. The people are
dignified. Two clear examples
are “Lula B. Cooper French Beauty Salon, ca. 1939, where 4
beauticians proudly stand in their white uniforms in their salon ready to
take care of customers and “We sell the Best”, 1940 where 5 gentlemen stand
in a grocery store ready to do business.
Robert H. McNeill is a very important photographer to
anyone who is interested in the history of Washington, DC’s
history of the first half of the 20th century.
His major contribution is capturing images of a people and events
that much of the major publications did not cover.
He not only captured it but he produced wonderful photographs in the
His work artfully explored the segregation and racism
that were part of life for African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region in
It also leaves great memories of heroes and celebrities of the time
in the Washington,
While he is not remembered by as many people as other photographers
James Van De Zee,
Monetta Sleet, Gordon Parks and others he is a
major contributor to the recording of DC’s history.
McNeill lived to be 87. In retirement, Mr. McNeill saw
his work revived in many exhibits and in local, national and international
television documentaries. It has appeared in three Smithsonian Institution
the National Museum of American Art and the Anacostia Museum's
Center for African American History and Culture.[v]
Robert McNeill obituary in Washington Post
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[iii] Willis, Deborah:
Visual Journal, Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties.
Lonnie Dawkins is a Fine Arts trained photographer
local to the Washington, DC: Maryland: and Virginia area. He is
however available worldwide.
Outstanding color or Black and white
portraiture. Corporate, Family, and personal photography.
Lonnie Dawkins is a Prince George's photographer.
Headshots, Executive Portraits, Family Portraits, Baby
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