Andrews, Bert 1929–1993
Andrews, Bert 1929–1993
Bert Andrews 1929–1993
“More than any single individual, [Bert Andrews] preserved the record of [the theatrical experience] of black history and culture,” stated Howard Dodson, head curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He was speaking at a time when Andrews had documented more than 1,000 productions of African American theater. Since this part of the theater world was almost invisible in the mainstream press, his work was especially important. Along the way he shot many important productions including The Blacks by Jean Genet, as done by African American Theater at St. Marks Playhouse in 1961, one of the first black productions to gain widespread recognition. He also captured the original New Haven production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which introduced one of the most fertile theater partnerships in recent times, that of playwright August Wilson and director Lloyd Richards.
Bert Andrews photographed almost every single important black actor of his generation, including Cicely Tyson, who was a close friend, James Earl Jones, Adolph Caeser, Louis Gossett, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Denzel Washington. He worked just as hard to photograph those who worked behind the scenes, including playwrights such as Charles Fuller, author of A Soldier’s Play, and directors such as Yvonne Taylor Chenne and Lloyd Richards who, in addition to his partnership with Wilson, served as director of the famed Yale Repertory Theater in the 1980s. Without Bert Andrews and his work, the photographic documentation of this lively, exciting, but suppressed, stream of culture would be substantially diminished.
Born in Chicago, Andrews took off for Harlem while still very young because he wanted to be part of the theater world. He was a good enough singer to twice win the amateur night at the famed Apollo Theater. Pianist Billy Taylor sometimes used him as part of his act; but by the time the Korean war had started, his career stalled and he joined the Army. Like the famous director of photography, Gordon Willis, Andrews started taking photos while in the army. Returning to New York following his stint in the war, he worked as an assistant to Chuck Stewart, a world-famous photographer whose shots of jazz musicians remain among the finest in the field. When Stewart quit a job in marketing to work full-time for the low wages Stewart was paying, his mother said to Andrews, “Fool! That’s [photography] what white people do as a hobby.”
Andrews worked with Chuck Stewart for several years before the older man affectionately “fired” him, telling him he was ready to be on his own and presenting him with a camera and some film to start taking his own photos. His first solo job was shooting for Social Whirl, but despite the steady work, he could not afford to live
At a Glance…
Born March 21, 1929, in Chicago, IL; son of John and Frieda Andrews; died of stomach cancer in 1993.
Photographic apprentice to Chuck Stewart, 1953-57;Social Whirl, staff photographer; free-iance photographer of theatrical and social events, 1957-93. Military service: U.S. Army, staff sergeant, 1950-52.
on his own and had to share an apartment with Columbia University students. Since the bathroom was his darkroom, everyone had to time their use of it around the schedule of his developing baths.
During this period Andrews started taking photos in the nightclubs of Harlem. Some of his photos from this period include shots of Willie Bryant, the emcee at the Apollo, and Nipsey Russell, one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success on television. He also free-lanced for the black press, including the famous Amsterdam News. Money was still tight, though, and he worked weddings and bar mitzvahs on the weekends to survive.
It was Cicely Tyson, whom he met in 1959 while she was working as a model and trying to break into acting, who led him to a job taking pictures of a production of Dark of the Moon at the Little Theatre in Harlem. From there, he frequently covered the theater scene in Harlem and Greenwich Village. It was during this time that he photographed The Blacks, one of the great American theater events of the century. The outstanding cast included, though not all at the same time, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., Maya Angelou, Louise Stubbs, Billy Dee Williams, and Roscoe Lee Browne. As his reputation grew, he shot more than just all-black productions. One of the first white productions he shot was The Subject Was Roses, which ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize.
A consummate craftsman, Andrews admitted to interviewers that he did not consider himself a great artist like Gordon Parks. He was a journalist and publicist, but he gave no less to his work than did other photographers. In her foreword to In the Shadow of the Great White Way, a collection of many of Andrews’s prints, Tyson recounts seeing Andrews throw out photographs after working on them in the dark room. Although she considered herself a good photographer and did not understand what was wrong with the rejected shots, she came to realize that “his demands for perfection, the artistic standards he set for himself were inviolate and known to him alone.” Tyson continues, “Bert always looked as if he was carrying his life on his shoulders—cameras hanging from his neck, leather bags brimming over with film, strobes and other equipment around his waist… Burdened by all the technical equipment necessary for his work, his body leaned to one side from the weight of his service. Body and soul—he was completely and utterly devoted to his work. It never asked too much of him.”
On January 29, 1995, a fire in Andrews’s Manhattan studio destroyed more than 40,000 prints and 100,000 negatives. It was particularly bitter for him because three weeks earlier, he learned that his grant proposal for funds to fire-proof his photographic archive had been rejected. Of course it was a personal disaster to lose so much precious work; but it may have been an even larger disaster in the context of the historical record of black theater in this country. The majority of his work dealt with the history of African American theater. No one else had had his access or worked so hard and concentrated so much focus on this subject matter.
Cicely Tyson herself was horrified by the historical implications, fearing that many black voices in the theater would be now lost, forever unremembered. In her foreword to Andrews’ photos, she writes: “I shudder to think that all of this might have been lost forever in the catastrophic fire that reduced Bert’s photographs to ashes in 1985. His entire life’s work was almost destroyed in one night and this priceless history of nearly three decades of theater arts along with it.”
Despite such discouragement, Bert Andrews refused to despair. Instead he spent the next three years trying to reconstruct the lost collection. He contacted all the theaters and actors with whom he had ever worked, running down all available prints and negatives. The “Friends of Bert Andrews” committee was formed and raised enough money for him to replace his equipment and keep working as a photographer. Fortunately, there were a couple of theater companies that had large collections of his photos, most particularly the National Black Touring Company and the Negro Ensemble Company. All told, he was able to recover only about 3 percent of the lost work, or around 3,000 prints; but Andrews was able to preserve his legacy and bring together a substantial body of work, which is now housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of New York City. Andrews was grateful for the help of the theater community in restoring his work. He told playwright Paul Carter Harrison in an interview that “the Black Theater community is largely responsible for resurrecting its photographic history. The photos belonged to me, but the history belonged to the community.” Still many photos of such legendary performers as Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, and the great vaudevillian comic Pigmeat Markham could not replaced, and with them an important part of the black historical record was lost.
Bert Andrews, who never married, died of stomach cancer at the age of 63. Howard Atlee, a theatrical publicist pointed out to the New York Times obituary writer that Andrews should not be considered just a photographer of black theater. By the time his career was done, he had ended up shooting more integrated or all white productions than black ones. Instead Andrews should be thought of as a very self-demanding photographer who left the best archive we have of black theater—despite the ravages of the disastrous fire—and who also was the first black to make a career in New York photographing theater, and not just black theater, but all theater.
Dark of the Moon, Little Theatre, 1959.
Black Nativity,41st Street Theater, 1961.
Two By Saroyan, East End Theatre, 1961.
The Blacks, St. Marks Playhouse, 1961.
Trumpets of the Lord, Astor Place Playhouse, 1963.
Blue Boy in Black, Masque Theater, 1963.
Mr. Johnson, Equity Library Theater, 1963.
The Blood Knot, Cricket Theatre, 1964.
The Slave, St. Marks Playhouse, 1964.
The Toilet, St. Marks Playhouse, 1964.
Othello, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1964.
Happy Ending, St. Marks Playhouse, 1965.
Day of Absence, St. Marks Playhouse, 1965.
Baal, Martinique Theatre, 1966.
Big Time Buck White, Village South Theatre, 1968.
Daddy Goodness, St. Marks Playhouse, 1967-68.
Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, John Golden Theatre, 1968.
House of Flowers, Theatre de Lys, 1968.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Cherry Lane Theatre, 1969.
Slave Ship, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969.
Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Playhouse Theatre, Delaware, 1969.
Passing Through from Exotic Places, Sheridan Square Playhouse, 1969.
The Reckoning, St. Marks Playhouse, 1969.
The Me Nobody Knows, Orpheum Theater, 1970.
Day of Absence, Negro Ensemble Company, 1970.
The Dream on Monky Mountain, Negro Ensemble Company, 1971.
Ain ‘t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Negro Ensemble Company, 1971.
The Sty of the Blind Pig, Negro Ensemble Company, 1971.
Behold, Cometh the Vanderkellans, National Center for Afro-American Artists, 1971.
Lost in the Stars, Imperial Theater, 1972.
The River Niger, Negro Ensemble Company, 1972.
Ladies in Waiting, Black Theatre Alliance and New Federal Theatre, 1973.
Le Femme Noir, New York Shakespeare Festival,1974.
Great MacDaddy, Negro Ensemble Company, 1974.
The Prodigal Sister, Theatre de Lys, 1974.
Cotillon, New Federal Theatre, 1975.
The Taking of Miss Janie, New Federal Theatre, 1975.
Me and Bessie, Edison Theatre,1975.
Sissyphus and the Blue Eyed Cyclops, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1975.
Bubbling Brown Sugar, ANTA Theatre, 1976.
The Square Root of Soul, Theatre de Lys, 1976.
Pappa B’on the D’ Train, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1976.
Paul Robeson, Lunt Fontanne Theatre, 1977.
Survival, Negro Ensemble Company, 1977.
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Longacre Theatre, Boston, 1977.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, Los Angeles Company, 1978.
No Left Turn, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1978.
Anna Lucasta, New Federal Theatre, 1978.
Eubie!, Ambassador Theater, 1978.
The Daughters of Mock, Negro Ensemble Company, 1979.
Coriolanus, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1979.
Julius Caeser, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1979.
Remembrance, New York Shakespeare Festival Work shop,1979.
A Raisin in the Sun, New Federal Theatre, 1979.
Amen Corner, Black Theatre Festival at Lincoln Center, 1979.
Zooman and the Sign, Negro Ensemble Company, 1980.
An Evening with Josephine Baker, City College of New York, 1980.
Season’s Reasons, National Black Touring Circuit, 1980.
Widows, New Federal Theatre, 1981.
Zora, New Federal Theatre, 1981.
Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1981.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Public Theatre, 1981.
A Soldier’s Play, Negro Ensemble Company, 1981.
When Chickens Come Home to Roost, New Federal Theatre, 1981.
Keyboard, New Federal Theatre, 1982.
Love to All Loraine, National Black Touring Circuit, 1982.
Tut-ank-ahmen, The Boy King, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1982.
Champeen, New Federal Theatre, 1983.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Yale Repertory Theater, 1984.
Andrews, Bert, In the Shadow of the Great White Way: Images from the Black Theater, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.
Ebony, December 1989, p. 28.
New York Times, January 27, 1993, p. A21.