Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Don Hogan Charles

Don Hogan Charles was an American photographer born on September 9th, 1938. He was the first African-American staff photographer hired by The New York Times.

 He attended George Washington High School in Manhattan and went on to study engineering at City College of New York before dropping out to pursue photography.

In 1964, after leaving City College, Charles joined The New York Times and remained there for 43 years, until he retired in 2007.

Before joining The Times he worked as a freelance photographer. Charles’s freelance work appeared in major international publications such as Der Spiegel and Paris Match. His commercial clients included Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Pan American World Airways.

In more than four decades at The Times, Mr. Charles photographed a wide range of subjects, from local hangouts to celebrities to fashion to the United Nations. But he may be best remembered for the work that earned him early acclaim: his photographs of key moments and figures of the civil rights era.

In 1964, he took a now-famous photograph, for Ebony magazine, of Malcolm X holding a rifle as he peered out of the window of his Queens home. In 1968, for The Times, he photographed Coretta Scott King, her gaze fixed in the distance, at the funeral of her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The photo appeared in the September 1964 issue of Ebony, five months before Malcolm’s 1965 assassination. Charles, then a freelancer, accompanied Ebony staffer Hans Massaquoi for three days as they followed Malcolm throughout New York as he recruited followers for his new Organisation of Afro-American Unity, according to a February 1993 article in Ebony.=

Mr. Charles resisted being racially pigeonholed but also considered it a duty to cover the movement, said Chester Higgins, who joined The Times in 1975 as one of its few other black photographers.

“He felt that his responsibility was to get the story right, that the white reporters and white photographers were very limited,” Mr. Higgins, who retired in 2015, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Charles took photographs of celebrities like Lew Alcindor, center, in March 1965. (Alcindor later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Even in New York, historically black neighbourhoods like Harlem, where Mr. Charles lived, were often covered with little nuance, said James Estrin, a longtime staff photographer for The Times and an editor of the photojournalism blog Lens.

His photographs also told the stories of people whose names weren’t making headlines. Charles spent his career photographing a diverse range of New York City scenes with an insightful eye for people of color, who were all-too-often overlooked by white photographers of the day. 

While he’s telling the story of New York from the mid-1960’s to 1980’s, he’s really documenting the black community at the same time. His work presents not just a different vision or a different perspective, but a different vision and voice.” 

At the time, a few people on staff had the slightest idea what a large amount of New York was like and He brought this reservoir of knowledge and experience of New York City.

From Black-and-White Negatives, a Positive View of Harlem

Exacting and deeply private, Mr. Charles came off as standoffish to some. But to others, especially many women, he was a supportive mentor.

“He’s going to give you the bear attitude, but if you look past that he was something else,” said Michelle Agins, who met Mr. Charles while she was a freelance photographer in Chicago and he was working in The Times’s bureau there.

The two reconnected when she joined The Times as a staff photographer in 1989.

“When you’re a new kid at The New York Times and you needed a big brother, he was all of that,” she said. “He was definitely the guy to have on your team. He wouldn’t let other people bully you.”

Mr. Charles took Ms. Agins under his wing, and she was not alone. “I’ve had many women photographers tell me that he stood up for them,” Mr. Estrin said.

That may be because Mr. Charles knew the hardships that came with belonging to a group that was underrepresented in the workplace.

Through his photographs of black neighborhoods, like this 1966 shot of card players on East 100th Street in Harlem, Mr. Charles gave readers an in-depth view of a part of New York City that had often been covered with little nuance.Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

At one Thanksgiving dinner decades earlier, Ms. O’Garro said, he tearfully described the pain he felt on arriving at a New York City store for an assignment, only to be asked to come in through a back entrance. She added that while covering the civil rights movement in the South, he would often check the tailpipe of his vehicle for explosives.

Despite those obstacles, Mr. Charles went on to have a long career at The Times, covering subjects including celebrities like John Lennon and Muhammad Ali and New York institutions like the United Nations. In 1996, four of his photographs were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on a century of photography from The Times.

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times. Policemen Scuffling with Demonstrator  Outside Armory. August 3, 1968 | MoMA

Kerner Commission's Prescription for Effective Grievance-Response | by  Joshua Davis | ILLUMINATION | Jul, 2020 | Medium
Boy walks ahead of soldiers during the Newark riots, 1967. Photo by Don Hogan Charles

I am a photographer currently living in London. Most of my work is in black and white because which I've found to be the best outlet to express myself. With patience a rather unique way of seeing the beauty around me, I enjoy creating a world that is unique to me.

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