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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.



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.



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:

When they first arrived in New York City in 1933, Marvin and Morgan Smith, twin bothers from Nicholsville, KY,.were intent on studying art. (But) By the time they retired in 1975, they'd racked up enough careers between them to keep quintuplets busy -- mural painter, landscape gardener, news service head, movie set decorator and sound recordist, to name a few. But their abiding interest was photography -- and Harlem, in all of its many facets, was their subject.
[The exhibition] takes viewers into the nightclubs, theaters, social halls and streets of Harlem in its heyday. The brothers' photography studio next door to the Apollo Theater was a magnet for artists, writers, performers and prominent community members -- everyone from W.E.B. DuBois and George Washington Carver to Jackie Robinson and Lena Home. Their specialty was Harlem stepping out-at clubs like Small's Paradise, Jimmy's Chicken Shack, Uptown House and The Flash Inn at local fraternity and sorority dances and at the annual Beaux-Arts ball at the Savoy. And their camera caught everything from candid street scenes to historic events, including the arrival of the Scottsboro Boys in New York after their release from an Alabama prison. The brothers then capped their photographic career by going into the movies, as sound recordist and set decorator respectively. The Renaissance men of Harlem? Indisputably, two gentlemen named Smith.

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:

For thirty years, the Smiths used their camera to record the achievements of blacks in the face of poverty and discrimination. Rejecting the focus on misery and hopelessness common to Harlem photographers of the time, they documented important "firsts" for the city's blacks-(for example, the first black policeman, the first black woman juror, the significant social movements of their day (anti-lynching protests, rent strikes, and early civil rights rallies), as well as the everyday life of Harlem, from churchgoers dressed for Easter to children playing in the street.

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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