Robert H. McNeill
by Lonnie Dawkins
The three premier Black photographers in Washington for
the first half of the 20th century were Addison Scurlock, Robert
H. McNeill, and Sam Lacy. Scurlock
was first on the scene and was an influence on McNeill and was probably most
famous for having a very prestigious studio in
This paper focuses on one of these pioneers---Robert H. McNeill. In the 1930's and 40's, any time there was a political, social, religious or community event in Washington's black community, Robert H. McNeill was there to photograph it.[i] McNeill is to be admired for his stance in using photography document social injustices and suffering versus simply taking pictures that portrayed the images that were expected by his employment. He was also an accomplished printer and his work was rich in blacks, whites and shades of gray.
The two major components of his work are his pictures
capturing life in the
McNeill was born in 1917 and died earlier this year—May
27th of complications of diabetes.
He was the son of a physician and a school administrator.
He was educated at
McNeill documented pictures for Black newspapers that otherwise may not have been recorded. Events include Eleanor Roosevelt dedicating the Police Boys Club in Washington’s Number Two Precinct in 1935, Mary Church Terrell Addressing Members of the National Association of Colored Women at Their Golden Jubilee in 1946, Opening of the T Street Post Office in 1940 and National Association of Colored Women Members March outside the White House to Protest a Lynching in Georgia in 1946.
For part of his life McNeill was a government photographer and was working as one 4 years before Gordon Parks, a much better known Black photographer began working at the Farm Security Administration.[iii] McNeill challenged authority by not providing
A major part of McNeill’s work was
The Negro in Virginia which was
sponsored by the
McNeill’s portfolio of pictures in
“Boys Reading Comic Books” is part of McNeill’s
All of his photos seem to be straight forward, not overly posed. There are no gimmicks. The printing is wonderful. The people are dignified. Two clear examples of this are “Lula B. Cooper French Beauty Salon, ca. 1939, where 4 beauticians proudly stand in their white uniforms in their salon ready to take care of customers and “We sell the Best”, 1940 where 5 gentlemen stand in a grocery store ready to do business.
Robert H. McNeill is a very important photographer to
anyone who is interested in the history of
His work artfully explored the segregation and racism
that were part of life for African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region in
It also leaves great memories of heroes and celebrities of the time
McNeill lived to be 87. In retirement, Mr. McNeill saw
his work revived in many exhibits and in local, national and international
television documentaries. It has appeared in three Smithsonian Institution
[iii] Willis, Deborah:
Lonnie Dawkins is a Fine Arts trained photographer local to the Washington, DC: Maryland: and Virginia area. He is however available worldwide. Outstanding color or Black and white portraiture. Corporate, Family, and personal photography. Lonnie Dawkins is a Prince George's photographer and a Lanham photographer.
Headshots, Executive Portraits, Family Portraits, Baby Portraits, Children Photography, Senior Pictures