John Smith and Morgan Smith

Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith

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Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith Summary

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Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, first published by The University Press of Kentucky in 1998, celebrates the life and pioneering artistic work of photographer twin brothers Morgan and Marvin Smith. From their arrival in Harlem in the 1930s, the Smiths set to capturing the life, culture, and faces—both famous and unknown—that populated their adopted hometown. This volume brings together a collection of the Smith’s original photographs and the stories behind them, as well as a biography of the brothers and their unique and unparalleled influence on American art.

The book opens with a foreword by Gordon Parks, Sr., himself a trailblazing photographer and one of the foremost photojournalists of the twentieth century. He discusses the community in which the brothers found themselves. These were the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of substantial artistic, cultural, and intellectual development that boomed during the 1920s. However, by the time the Smiths arrived in 1933, Harlem was a different place, mired in poverty, yet “strangely coiled within the structure of the black bourgeoisie.” Ignored by the predominantly white-owned, operated, and written media of the era, the Smiths made it their mission to chronicle this new Harlem. In all its glory and heartbreak, its dreams bright and broken, and its talent—which, despite the community’s invisibility in the eyes of the rest of the world, continued to flourish.

Parks recounts how he befriended Morgan and Marvin and how generous both men were with their time, their talent, and even their own home, opening their doors to any fellow artist who didn’t have a roof over his or her head.

The first chapter of the book is a brief biography of the Smiths. It discusses their 1910 births in the rural Southern town of Nicholasville, Kentucky, and their childhood as the sons of sharecroppers. This was not an enviable life. The boys attended a one-room schoolhouse, but each year they were pulled out of school to help their parents work the fields. Marvin, who was still living at the time Harlem was published, discussed the sharecropping system. The owner of the fields took half the profits from the crops; then, the owners took the sharecroppers’ living expenses from the other half, “paying” the sharecroppers the tiny pittance remaining. This effectively kept the workers stuck on the farms for their entire lives.

Yet, the family dreamed of more. In 1922, the boys’ father, Charles, found work in Lexington, and the Smiths were one of the few sharecropping families who made it off the farm. In the big city, the boys had opportunities not available in Nicholasville. They attended an all-black school, and, encouraged by their parents, dove into their artistic interests. They learned to draw by sketching the Sears catalog. Then they moved on to pastels and charcoals, followed by oil painting. They even taught themselves to sculpt—out of bars of Ivory soap. Through friendships in Lexington’s black community, they met prominent photographer Matthew Archdeacon, who gifted the twins a camera of their own. The boys found their true calling.

Despite receiving football scholarships to multiple colleges, the twins first went to Cincinnati. They had watched their friends graduate from college and return to the same low-paying jobs they had before college, so higher education seemed a waste of time. In Cincinnati, horizons were no brighter, which prompted the Smith twins to relocate to New York City. The Great Depression was in full force, but Morgan and Marvin persistently pursued their dreams. Armed with just their camera, their talent, and an abundance of determination, they photographed Harlem as she was. That included the everyday faces of folks struggling to get by, as well as some of the most famous African Americans alive at the time.

Subsequent chapters separate the Smiths’ photos by subject. “Faces of Harlem” records the daily lives of people populating the neighborhood. “Newsmakers” features images of New York City’s first black policeman and first black woman juror, among many others. Included in “Artists and Entertainers” are pictures of Josephine Baker, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, and an early-career Maya Angelou, then known as a dancer. In “Sports Figures,” the Smiths photograph personalities as groundbreaking and unforgettable as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. The book’s final chapter tells the stories behind how each photograph came to be. In all, the book contains almost 150 photos from the Smiths’ archive.

Harlem is a salute to of one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world, its cultural life, and the wide array of people that called it home and passed through its streets. While the famed Renaissance of Harlem may have been over, the Smiths showed that the great minds and talents of the community raged on. The Smiths’ work is a testament to the talents and contributions—both their own and their subjects’—that not only shaped a neighborhood, but an entire nation.