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Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith
August 12 - October 15, 2005
The exhibition, Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith surveys the lives, art and work of Harlem's premier photographers. Settling in Harlem in 1933, African American identical twins Morgan and Marvin Smith opened a photography studio where they photographed African American businessmen, politicians, entertainers and athletes in a time that was the precursor to the Harlem Renaissance. Their studio, located next door to The Apollo Theatre, became a popular meeting place for some of the era's most notable figures including ball player Jackie Robinson, writer Langston Hughes, and entertainers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. This exhibition features over 100 silver gelatin photographs detailing one of the most unique and creative cultural movements in American history.
ABOUT MORGAN AND MARVIN SMITH
Born in Nicholsville, Kentucky on February 16, 1910, the identical twins and sons of sharecroppers moved to Lexington, Kentucky twelve years later. They set up a photo studio in the basement of their home, using an inexpensive camera given to them as a gift by a local photographer. In search of better opportunities for blacks to study art, they moved to New York in 1933.
The Smiths found a flourishing art community in Harlem supported by the Federal Arts Program, an arm of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and enrolled in a free art school run by sculptor Augusta Savage, mentor to aspiring artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Selma Burke, Ernest Crichlow and Robert Blackburn. Through Savage, they soon met such notable literary figures as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. During the mid-1930s they studied art on their own while experimenting with street photography and submitting photos of Harlem social and political events to African-American newspapers.
FIRST STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER FOR AMSTERDAM NEWS
In 1937, Morgan Smith was hired as the first staff photographer for the Amsterdam News, New York City's leading Black weekly newspaper, after winning honorable mention in the New York Herald Tribune's national photography contest with his image of a young boy, Robert Day, playing Hi-Li. Morgan held the position with the Amsterdam News until 1939.
Later that year (1939), the twins opened a professional photo studio on West 125th street, moving down the street, next to the Apollo Theatre, the following year. It became a popular meeting place for models and performing artists, and drew notable figures from the news, political, and entertainment worlds. Showgirls and fashion models were particularly drawn to the photographers. "Morgan and Marvin created for them their own Hollywood" observed poet Nikky Finney, "right there within a place called the M. Smith Studio."
In an article announcing the exhibition in a recent issue of the magazine "Museums New York", the editor writes the following:
Among the artists and performers who were not mentioned in the above article, but who also were captured by the Smith brothers camera were Harry Belafonte, Sydney Poitier, Eartha Kitt, Maya Angelou, Frederick O'Neal, Alice Childress, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Count Basic, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Eddie Rochester, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniels, Zora Neal Hurston, Step n' Fetchit, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham, Pearl Bailey, Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Frank Silvera and Claudia McNeal. Many of these artists would come to the Smith's studio even though their managers would try to steer them to white photographers downtown.
The brothers also photographed other prominent members of the community, including Matthew Henson when he returned from the North Pole; Dr. W.E.B. DuBois recording a speech in their studio; Nat King Cole dancing at his wedding; Jackie Robinson teaching his young son how to hold a baseball bat; Joe Louis at his training camp, and Josephine Baker during her first return to America.
Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks, Sr. says of the Smiths: "They compiled a pictorial record of an era marked by chaos. They caught the smell of the streets, and they showed the social and political change that took place within Harlem's black intelligentsia." And Parks added in the forward he wrote to the book, "Harlem spread itself before the cameras of Morgan and Marvin Hill Smith like a great table cloth, and eagerly they went about devouring what it had to offer."
On the jacket to the 1997 book Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, by Morgan Smith, Marvin Smith; and edited by James A. Miller, it is stated that:
Although their studio remained open until 1968, the Smiths primary career interests shifted during the 1950s, finally becoming centered in film and television until their retirement in 1975. Morgan Smith died February 17, 1993, one day after his 83rd birthday. Marvin Smith died in 2003.
Harlem: The Visions of Morgan and Marvin Smith is organized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. The exhibition is being held jointly at the Pensacola Museum of Art and in the University of West Florida Art Gallery, currently on display at the Pensacola Museum of Art through October 15, 2005 and at the University of West Florida through October 14, 2005.
The New York Public Library held Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith from November 19, 1997 through April 19, 1998.
Members of the exhibition Curatorial Committee are: Howard Dodson, Retha R. Onitiri, Monica Smith, Jr., Roberta Yancy and Mary Yearwood.
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