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Remembering Robert Houston Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

6 May 2021

Robert Houston, who documented the civil rights movement in the U.S., died late last month at the age of 86.

Houston was born in East Baltimore 1935. He got his first camera when he was only four years old.

He attended the city's segregated public schools, graduating from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, one of Baltimore's two public high schools for African Americans. He later enrolled in the Maryland State College, graduating with a degree in biology and chemistry.

In 1958, Houston was drafted into the military. After his two years were up, he moved with his family to Massachusetts, where he worked as a biology lab technician.

But photography was in his blood. He wrote a letter to Gordon Parks in 1966 and went to Time-Life in New York City in 1967 with his portfolio. He tells the story:

Security guards were at each elevator checking everybody. I hesitated because I didn't even know where I was going or who I was going to see. Lo and behold, across the street a fantastically beautiful lady in a microskirt passed by and the guards ran to the window to watch her, and I slipped past when the elevator doors opened.

I waited in the Time-Life lounge for Mr. Parks and, as I was waiting, it was like a who's-who of photographers walked through. The grandmaster Alfred Eisenstaedt spoke to me; the great sports photographer George Silk came through; and behind them, Gordon Parks.

He came in and I had two boxes with 84 prints. He said, "I'll give you as much time as I can."

After going through every one of my photos, he said, "I have a question for you. You don't like people do you?"

I said, "I can take them or leave them."

He said, "Well, you better take them because seascapes and trees and mountains don't [sell] pictures."

That was the most important advice he ever gave me.

Parks helped him get representation with the Black Star photogrpaphy agency. Through them he was sent to Washington, D.C. to cover Martin Luther King Jr.'s poverty campaign after King's assassination in 1968.

"I had to do something," he said. "I wasn't going to riot, or go to jail, so I grabbed my camera and went out into the streets and I started shooting."

'I wasn't going to riot, or go to jail, so I grabbed my camera and went out into the streets and I started shooting.'

He joined the 3,000 people who heeded the late King's call to march on Washington to fight for jobs in the Poor People's Campaign. Unlike the other photographers covering the movement, he lived among the protestors in the tents and mud of Resurrection City.

"That was my gimmick to get an assignment," he said. "I was hired by Black Star, the international photo agency, to photograph from the inside out."

He spent six weeks there, leaving only for the birth of his third child.

Many of those images weren't published, overshadowed by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

He worked as a photographer in advertising, editorial and illustration before becoming a news photographer for the Wilmington News Journal, In Wilmington, Del. He then moved to Baltimore to continue his career as a free-lance photographer.

Parks described Houston as "guided by his heart" and explained:

One finds him immersed in the problems of poverty and inhumanity. People of all colors who suffer those problems come and go and at times they tend to disappear. But wherever their destination happens to be, Houston's camera seems to be there waiting -- ready to take another look.

In addition to the Poor People's Campaign in 1968, he covered the Million Man March in 1995 and chronicled street life in the city of Baltimore.

He was no fan of digital photography, though, claiming "the difference between shooting film and shooting digital is like comparing a Thanksgiving home-cooked meal to McDonalds or Wendys."

Houston's work has been shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in the exhibition City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. The museum holds his photographs of Resurrection City in their collection, as well as a journal he kept.

The Guardian has published a gallery of his images and his images are on his Flickr photostream.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Houston said, "I want to be remembered as Bob Houston. Man. Husband. Father. Photographer. Black."

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