December 19, 2017, marks the centennial of the birth of photographer Robert H. McNeill. Pictured here in a self-portrait from 1940, McNeill was born in Washington, D.C., in 1917. Known for his crisp photographs of life in Washington, McNeill forged an expansive career. He was lauded for his ability to capture the humanity and vitality of D.C.’s African American community.
McNeill began taking photographs while he was a student at Dunbar Senior High School. He continued taking photographs as a student at Howard University where the Hilltop often ran his shots of varsity sports. His first professionally published photographs were of Jesse Owens as he visited Howard shortly after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. According to McNeill’s family, the experience showed him that he could make a living as a photographer. McNeill would go on to work as a photographer and photojournalist for the next 50 years.
It’s likely that you’ve seen a McNeill photograph and not realized it. You may even have walked by his photographs while on U Street, where he contributed historical photographs to the Greater U Street Heritage Trail. Over the course of his career, McNeill covered everything from society events, performances at the segregated Warner Theatre, and life in the military, to the work of tobacco laborers in Virginia.
For many, McNeill’s work, like that of Addison Scurlock, defines an era of African American life in the District. McNeill photographs appeared in “A Century of Black Photographers,” a 1983-84 traveling exhibit from the Rhode Island School of Design; “The Black Photographer: An American View,” at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center(1985); “To Achieve These Rights,” at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum (1992); and “Free Within Ourselves,” at the Smithsonian National Museum of Art (1994-95). In 1997 the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. featured McNeill’s photographs in our “Remembering U Street” exhibit, and Kathryn S. Smith created an essay by the same name for the fall/winter Washington History magazine.
McNeill’s elegantly composed works pictured African Americans in the midst of everyday life. Scholar and archivist Nicholas Natanson and photography historian Deborah Willis call attention to the dignity and humanity McNeill conferred on those he photographed, at a moment when depictions of African Americans were often stereotypical and demeaning.
In 1936 McNeill left Howard University and enrolled at the New York Institute of Photography to focus on photography full time. He graduated in 1938 and was appointed a photographic consultant for the Federal Writer’s Project, a project established by the Roosevelt administration to provide artists, writers, and scholars with work during the Great Depression. McNeill was hand-picked by editor Sterling Brown who saw McNeill’s photograph, “Bronx Slave Market,” in Flash! magazine, an innovative photo weekly. Brown, who headed the only all-African American WPA research team, sought out the then 20-year-old photographer because he believed McNeill would bring a thoughtful approach to capturing African American communities in Virginia.
McNeill, however, grew up in Washington, far from rural Virginia, and the poverty, segregation, and racial norms of rural Virginia were quite different than the life he led as the son of a physician in the nation’s capital. Nonetheless he produced 160 photographs of African American life in Virginia. Notably, unlike most other WPA photographers, he developed his own prints—which gave him greater control over the final image. The results exemplify McNeill’s attention to composition and detail, an ability to connect with those being photographed, his command of light, and an understanding of the strict social and visual codes that worked to reinforce the status of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
McNeill’s striking images of tobacco workers, social gatherings, laundresses, and women in their Sunday best show a commitment to showing daily life for African Americans in rural Virginia. His ability to capture people at personal moments of reflection, with their families or friends, or as they labored suggests that he was able to put those he photographed at ease. A portion of his photographs appear in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion and The Negro in Virginia, both published in 1940.
In 1938 McNeill returned to the District to open his own photography studio, first at 14th and T Streets NW (not far from Addison Scurlock), and then at 13th and U.
McNeill was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, before serving in Guadalcanal. He ended his military career with a commission as a second lieutenant, and when he returned home he continued to freelance, supplying pictures of East Coast celebrities, news, and sporting events to five major African American newspapers.
Between 1950 and 1956, McNeill worked as a staff photographer in several U.S. military departments before joining the Department of State. He served during the tenures of six secretaries of state and made the official portraits of Secretaries Rusk, Kissinger, and Vance. In 1978 McNeill retired as chief of the Photography Branch, Audio-Visual Services Division.
Robert H. McNeill died in 2005. Sixteen Robert McNeill photographs are now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, underscoring his artistry and the importance of his vision as a chronicler of American life.
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