Robert H. McNeill

Maryland portrait photographer

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Robert McNeill photographer

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Robert H. McNeill

Washington Photographer

1917-2005

by

 

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 Washington. Lacy was a pioneer sportswriter and later became a journalist and renowned civil rights leader.

 

This paper 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 photography 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 Howard University 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 Washington, 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. He photographed Jesse Owens when he visited Howard University 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 Administration.[iii]

 

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 “New 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 of this 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 process.

His work artfully explored the segregation and racism that were part of life for African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region in mid-century. It also leaves great memories of heroes and celebrities of the time in the Washington, DC area. While he is not remembered by as many people as other photographers such as 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 museums: the Anacostia Museum, 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: Lusaka, Jane. Visual Journal, Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties. Smithsonian Institution. Washington, 1996.

[v] http://www.roberthmcneill.com/

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 Portraits, Children Photography, Senior Pictures