Smith, Marvin and Morgan 1910–2003 and 1910–1993
Marvin and Morgan Smith 1910–2003 and 1910–1993
Photographers Morgan and Marvin Smith documented Harlem, the singular and vibrant African-American community of New York City, during the thirties and forties. The Smiths were twin brothers and ran a photography studio next door to the fabled Apollo Theater for nearly thirty years. Their clients ranged from pillars of the civil rights movement to ordinary Harlem families. The Smiths also ventured outside their studio to capture the rhythm and beauty of everyday life in this northern quadrant of Manhattan. “Their subjects are presented quietly and affectionately, without fanfare, and most often with great dignity,” wrote James A. Miller in the introduction to Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith. “In an era before ‘Black Is Beautiful’ became the watchword for a generation, the Smiths quietly and effectively launched their own cultural revolution, creating in the process a visual legacy that stands the test of time.”
The Smiths were identical twins born on February 16, 1910, in Nicholasville, Kentucky, a rural area near Lexington. Their parents, Charles and Allena, were sharecroppers. As youngsters, the Smiths attended a local one-room schoolhouse, but also missed many days of class when they helped their parents to plant and harvest tobacco, corn, and sugarcane during peak times. Artistically gifted from an early age, the twins honed their drawing skills by copying images from the ubiquitous Sears, Roebuck catalog of the day. Around 1928 the family moved to Lexington’s black community, where their father had been able to build a house for them on Roosevelt Street.
The Smiths enrolled at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the city’s only high school open to African-American students. Their parents encouraged their artistic ambitions and provided them with what materials they could, but the boys were also ingenious in their quest for art supplies. Once, they read a magazine article about soap carving. “So we both got involved in making figures out of cakes of Ivory soap,” Marvin once recalled, according to the Harlem book. “The principal at Dunbar High was impressed, so he put them on display in the lobby at school…which was uplifting, which encouraged us.”
Eager to earn their own way, both brothers took jobs for wealthy white Lexington citizens while still teenagers. Morgan served as a chauffeur and yardman for a private school headmaster, while Marvin was a helper for an elderly woman whose family were well-known landowners. The headmaster let Morgan use an art studio at his school, since Dunbar High did not have one; the widow, in turn, introduced Marvin to a prominent local artist, who gave him art lessons in exchange for doing chores at her home. When they became interested in photography, they went to visit the city’s best-known society portrait photographer, who was also impressed by their quiet, earnest determination. He gave them their first camera, an unwieldy box device that needed powder to ignite the flash. At home, they set up a darkroom in the basement and taught themselves the rest.
At a Glance…
Born on February 16, 1910, in Nicholasville, KY; Morgan died of cancer on November 17, 1993, in New York, NY; Marvin died on November 9, 2003, in New York, NY; sons of Charles (a sharecropper) and Allena (a sharecropper; maiden name, Hutchinson) Smith; Morgan married Anna McLean, 1936 (divorced), and Monica Mais (a soprano), 1950; children: (with Mais) Monica; Marvin married Florence McLean, 1936 (divorced). Education: Marvin attended the U.S. Naval Air Station School of Photography and Motion Pictures, and studied painting in Paris under Fernand Léger, early 1950s. Military Service: Marvin Smith served in the U.S. Navy, World War II
Career; Marvin Smith; New York City Parks Department, gardener, 1930s; television networks, propmaster, set decorator, and freelance sound technician, 1960s. Morgan Smith: Works Progress Administration, muralist, 1930s; Amsterdam News, staff photographer, 1937-39; People’s Voice, photographer, 1942, photo news syndicate, c. World War II (1939-45); ABC Television, sound technician, c. 1950-60. Marvin and Morgan Smith: M & M Smith, Harlern, 1939-68.
In 1933 the Smiths became the first in their family to earn high school diplomas. They were offered football scholarships from leading black colleges, Fisk and Howard among them, but decided to pursue their artistic ambitions instead. They first moved to Cincinnati because, as Marvin recalled in the Harlem book, “There was no art for blacks in Kentucky,” but they were disappointed by the unspoken racism that seemed to hinder opportunities for them there. They made a new friend, however, who encouraged them to join the artistic migration to New York City. They bought bus tickets and left with a hundred dollars between them. “After a slight disagreement, we went to the back of the bus,” Marvin told New York Times writer Tracie Rozhon in 1997. “We really didn’t have a choice.” The bus dropped them off in Times Square on a September day in 1933, but the brothers were baffled, as Marvin recalled in the same interview. “We looked and looked, and then we asked, ‘Where are all the black people?’”
They soon found their way to Harlem, the epicenter of black life in New York. A decade earlier, the area had served as home base to a flourishing new movement that celebrated African-American art and culture. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston chronicled black life, and a vibrant musical scene lured audiences of all colors. But the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance were mostly over by the time the Smiths arrived. The Great Depression had taken hold, and times were tough for artists. Opportunity came in the form of a large-scale government jobs program that was the idea of a newly elected Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both brothers found jobs with the Civil Works Administration, which later evolved into the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA built post offices, bridges, and other government projects. The Smiths, with their farm experience, were offered a slot on a team that created the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park. Morgan later worked on a mural for the Harlem Hospital, while Marvin stayed with New York Parks Department.
Both Morgan and Marvin also enrolled in a free school run by sculptor Augusta Savage on West 126th Street. There they met many leading black artists, among them Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. They began taking street photographs, and decided to concentrate on the medium exclusively around 1937. A boost came when Morgan entered a local newspaper photography contest, which helped him land steady work at the Amsterdam News, the city’s leading black newspaper, as its first-ever staff photographer in 1937. Two years later, the Smiths opened their own photography studio at 141 West 125th Street. Within a year they took a lease on a second-floor space at 243 West 125th Street, next door to Apollo Theater. They used the ground-floor windows for displays of their work, and since the Apollo was one of Harlem’s most lively entertainment venues, it proved a shrewd marketing move. Soon, a steady stream of customers came to book portrait-sitting appointments.
The Smiths took studio portraits of ordinary folk with backgrounds much like their own. These portraits, usually sent to families back home, displayed the former Southerners’ new urban affluence. Apollo Theater chorus dancers came to have publicity stills taken, as did aspiring models, and for these, the Smiths deployed their considerable artistic talents to create imaginative sets. Local figures and politicians also sat for portraits, and both inside and outside the studio the Smiths photographed a long list of African-American celebrities, from James Weldon Johnson and George Washington Carver to Billie Holiday and Fats Waller. They shot Nat King Cole at his wedding and Maya Angelou when she was a dancer. They knew prize-fighter Joe Louis and went to his training camp to take photos of him—since black photographers were barred from the press box at his bouts—and caught baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson teaching his young son how to hold the bat. Their scenes of street life in Harlem were not a moneymaker by any stretch: the Amsterdam News and papers like it struggled financially, and could pay just a $1.50 or so for an image.
All of their images bore the stamp “M & M Smith.” “Sometimes I held the camera, sometimes he did,” Marvin explained to the New York Times’ Rozhon. Whether together or solo, the Smiths captured many scenes from Harlem life of the time, but never sought out the shocking or sensational, unlike some other photographers. Disdaining scenes that showed poverty, hardship, or overt racism, they instead tried to show the rhythm of life in Harlem. Their images captured acrobatic Lindy-hoppers in mid-air at dances, anti-lynching protests, a boycott campaign organized by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that urged Harlem’s blacks “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” and crowds of Easter Sunday churchgoers. Their work became “a pictorial record of an era marked by chaos,” wrote photographer and Smith protégé Gordon Parks Sr. in the foreword to Harlem. “They caught the smell of the streets, and they showed the social and political change that took place within Harlem’s black intelligentsia.”
During World War II, Marvin left New York City to serve in the U.S. Navy, and was the first African-American student to enroll at the Naval Air Station School of Photography and Motion Pictures in Pensacola, Florida. Back in New York, Morgan set up a commercial news service that provided photographs to several leading black newspapers across the United States. In 1942 he began working for a radical newspaper based in Harlem, the People’s Voice, which was owned by Powell. Morgan was once invited to photograph the street gangs of Harlem for Life magazine, the preeminent publication of the day and read by millions, but he turned it down, not wishing to promote stereotypes of African-American urban life.
After the war, Marvin traveled to France with Bearden, and studied there with renowned artist Fernand Léger. Morgan ventured in another direction, setting up a sound studio in his photography building. There, he recorded well-known orators, such as W.E.B. DuBois, as well as bands, and eventually went on to a job as a sound technician with a fledgling new television network, ABC. Both brothers worked in television for a number of years, and finally closed their Harlem studio in 1968. They retired at age 65 in 1975. In the 1970s they took up needlework and created knitting and crochet patterns which they sold to popular women’s magazines like McCall’s.
In 1936, the Smiths had married identical twins, Anna and Florence McLean, but were divorced on the same day just a few years later. Morgan remarried a soprano from Jamaica, with whom he had a daughter. He died of cancer in 1993, and Marvin passed away ten years later. In the early 1990s, the unusual photographertwins were the subject of a documentary film, M & M Smith: For Posterity’s Sake, that aired on public television stations in the United States. Their photographs were featured prominently in a 1996 Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties. It went on to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where Marvin gave personal tours. “I mean, it’s kind of only fair of me,” he told Rozhon in the New York Times interview. “To share with people what I can, to tell them about the photographs.”
Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, foreword by Gordon Parks Sr., introductions by James A. Miller, University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Art in America, June 1998, p. 111.
New York Times, February 25, 1993, p. B8; December 12, 1997; December 25, 1997; November 12, 2003, p. C13.
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