Black Photographer's 1940s Portraits Capture Bright Side Of Tough Lives
When the new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in Washington, D.C., one of the exhibits will be a collection of photographs from the late 1930s to the 1940s, taken by a young African-American woman named Laura Fitzpatrick.
As NPR’s Elizabeth Blair reports, Fitzpatrick chose to capture images of life at its best.
One photographer. One neighborhood. Ten years worth of images. When the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens this weekend, one of the exhibits will be a collection of photographs from the late 1930s to the 1940s, taken by a young African-American woman who, despite having no formal training, captured the evolution of a community.
She also chose to show life in her Brooklyn neighborhood at its best.
Portraits were Laura Fitzpatrick’s specialty. She took hundreds of them. At the time, Americans were still pulling themselves out of the Depression. Then World War II raged. Discrimination against African Americans was a brutal fact of life. Yet there is barely a hint of these struggles in Fitzpatrick’s images of her friends and family: A young couple sunbathing on Coney Island. A group of friends sitting on big rocks in the park. A mother and her children after church.
“We were really amazed by the fact that it was a single photographer,” said Smithsonian photography and film curator Rhea Combs. “And it documented a 10 year span of one local neighborhood, Williamsburg, Brooklyn … And that it looks at the way a community was shaped, the way it was formed and how people lived.”
Fitzpatrick was born in Mount Meigs, Alabama in 1927. Her son Daniel Evans said it was her mother who gave her the camera when she was 10 years old.
“While my grandmother was working hard, she also wanted my mother to have something to do during the day,” Evans said. “And she took to it.”
It was one of those accordion, folding cameras, and Evans said his mother took it everywhere. Fitzpatrick’s subjects were her family, friends and neighbors in Williamsburg, many of whom had also migrated north from southern states like Alabama and Mississippi.
Fitzpatrick’s collection — some 500 photographs — was donated to the new museum by her children.
“When the Smithsonian saw these photos they said ‘Hey, you can go to the New York or Brooklyn historical society or you can come with us,’” Evans said. “And I’m like, ‘I’m going with you guys.’ Because I really feel this is not a story about Brooklyn. This is really an African-American story about African Americans who came from the south — numerous states. Probably every state in the south. And they came north. They just happened to come to Brooklyn, but it’s really about their opportunity leaving the south and having that new beginning.”
Not only was Fitzpatrick a prolific photographer, she was meticulous in how she preserved her collection in albums, with lively captions like “Dig the tie Ralph,” and “This is junior high school style.” And stylish they were. Three, sharply dressed young women stand, side-by-side, on a city sidewalk, dressed in suits and skirts below the knees, bobby socks and saddle shoes.
“No tattoos,” Combs notes.
In every Fitzpatrick photograph, her subjects are dressed to the nines. Think jackets, fedoras, collared shirts, corsages and high heels.
“Everybody says, ‘Wow, look at how dressed up they are,’” Evans said. “And their parents were domestic workers, janitors. There really wasn’t money around but that never stopped them from holding their heads up high, looking forward to the future.”
Fitzpatrick took great care to stage her portraits. She turned the rooftop of the public housing she and her mother lived in into a studio, sometimes bringing out furniture for people to sit on.
Another favorite spot was in front of the Star Employment Agency. Posing in front of the Brooklyn storefront in 1944, a young man wears a buttoned up suit and tie. A young woman is wearing a long, stylish wool coat with a fur collar.
“That was everyone’s goal, to be able to finish high school and go into that Star Employment Agency and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m ready to work,’” Evans said.
Whatever struggles there must have been, Fitzpatrick captured a sense of joy in the people she photographed, whether it was a family portrait or a group of friends in the park. And for Combs, that’s the point.
“This provides this kind of counter-narrative in a way that allows us to shows African Americans out there thriving, enjoying life,” Combs said. “That it wasn’t always this kind of depressed existence by any stretch of the imagination. So you see the resilience and the fortitude and just the beauty of everyday existence.”
Still, after high school Fitzpatrick didn’t have as much time for photography.
“If she had her druthers she would’ve become a professional photographer but, for an African American woman with a high school education in 1945 … She decided to become a nurse,” Evans said.
Fitzpatrick enrolled in the YWCA School of Nursing. She got married and raised four children. She was a nurse at Brooklyn’s Brookdale Hospital for 33 years. She died in 1987.
Evans said he believes his mother knew her photographs would have cultural and historical relevance someday. She was, he said, the only person in the neighborhood with a camera.