DON HOGAN: NEW YORK TIMES' FIRST BLACK PHOTOGRAPHER GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN."
By: Richard Prince, "Journal-isms"
Don Hogan Charles, the first black photographer at the New York Times best known for his iconic photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle at the window of his home, died, according to a Twitter message Sunday from Rachel L. Swarns, who followed Charles at the Times.
A Times obituary by Niraj Chokshi published on (Dec. 25) said Charles died on Dec. 15 in the East Harlem section of New York. He was 79.
His niece Cherylann O’Garro, who announced the death, said his family did not yet know the cause, Chokshi reported.
Chester Higgins Jr., a photographer retired from the Times in 2014 and who worked with Charles there, reported that services will be held Dec. 30, at Benta’s Funeral Home, 630 St. Nicholas Ave. at 143rd Street in Harlem. Viewing begins at 11 a.m. and the service at 4 p.m., the funeral home confirmed. Charles is listed there under this given name of Daniel Charles.
Before the Times obituary was posted, Angela Helm pointed out Sunday on The Root, “We know from a Museum of Modern Art link that Charles was born in 1938.”
The museum showed photos by Charles from 1968 and 1969 at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from a shooting before horrified churchgoers at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and from police scuffling with a demonstrator outside a New York armory.
However, it was the photo of Malcolm X, pulling back curtains to peer out of a window at his Queens, N.Y., home, fearing assassins, for which Charles is most remembered.
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 Organization of Afro-American Unity, according to a February 1993 article in Ebony. (A similar photo, perhaps the same one, appeared in Life magazine).
Charles was at the Queens home again after firebombs crashed through Malcolm’s living room windows in February 1965. “Jolted awake by the explosions, he rushed his wife and four young daughters out into the cold before fire engulfed their modest brick house in East Elmhurst, Queens,” Swarns, Darcy Eveleigh and Damien Cave wrote in the newly published “Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives.”
“We published an article about the attack on Feb. 15, 1965, and paired it with a photograph taken by a news agency that captured Malcolm X stepping out of his car, in front of his house. What our readers did not know was that one of our own photographers, Don Hogan Charles, had walked through the house, shooting powerful pictures of the damage. . . .”J. Nayer Hardin, a former Harlem resident who said she talked with Charles, contended in 2007, “It was Malcolm X who recommended (more drama than that world contains) Don for the job at the Times. He delivered the shot of Malcolm X at a window with a gun . . .”
To the Times staffers who wrote “Unseen,” Charles’ role as a photographic truth-teller was paramount. As the Kerner Commission would point out in 1968, African Americans were justifiably skeptical of reporting on their communities by white reporters and white-run news media. “Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective,” said the report, from what was officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
For example, a 1966 article by the Times’ McCandlish Phillips, described Harlem with these words: “A curtain of fear, about as forbidding as a wall of brick, has made the black ghetto almost psychologically impenetrable to the white man — at a time when many in the ghetto sense that it needs the white man to help it save itself from a kind of psychological secession from a white society.”
Charles, then 27, was assigned to take the accompanying photos. And “the images he made reveal a Harlem much different from the one portrayed in the text,” James Estrin wrote for the Times in 2016.
In his 2003 memoir “City Room,” the late Times managing editor Arthur Gelb recalled that the Times had commissioned a poll of Harlem residents in 1968, conducted by the Gallup organization and using 26 black questioners. Gelb gave a list of 20 respondents to Charles and to reporter C. Gerald Fraser, both black journalists familiar with Harlem, so they could find residents to illustrate the story.
“When they began checking the list, they were nonplussed to discover that in a number of cases they could not find the respondents named as living in the addresses on the list. . . .” As it turned out, a Gallup aide tearfully confided, “at least two of these temporary employees, fearing to enter the decrepit buildings, had confessed to creating fictitious interviewees and answers to questionnaires. In some cases, they admitted, they had conducted their interviews in the street and made up the names and addresses of respondents.”
Charles’ portfolio also included photos of New Jersey National Guardsmen following a black youth during the 1967 Newark uprising, of the late John Lennon in a 1972 street scene and innumerable scenes of everyday Harlem life.
Hardin wrote a blog post, “Where In The World Is Don Hogan Charles?” in 2007 and followed up in 2008, saying she had talked with Charles. She called the photographer, then working independently, “one of those great unsung heroes who keeps on keeping on no matter what.” Coincidentally, Hardin is an in-law of black journalist Chauncey Bailey, who was assassinated in 2007.
A Times colleague told Journal-isms that Charles was asked to leave the paper about 10 years ago after an incident that took place on an assignment and that it left him hurt and embittered. The Times obituary said Charles retired in 2007.
Estrin wrote in 2016, “Mr. Charles still lives in Harlem, but it is a neighborhood vastly different from what it was in the 1960s. Today many white people live in the neighborhood, real estate prices are soaring and new galleries and restaurants keep popping up. The area that once was forbidding enough to outsiders to merit a story about its realities is now one where longtime black residents worry about being able to afford it.”
Tributes on social media indicate that Charles and his work, particularly the Malcolm photo, are remembered.
Jarrad Henderson, multimedia producer at USA Today who heads the Visual Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists, is one who has not forgotten.
“As an undergraduate student, I wasn’t taught about many photographers who looked like me,” Henderson messaged Journal-isms. “Independent study led me to people like Gordon Parks, Sharon Farmer, Eli Reed and Don Charles. . . . His image of Malcolm X remains one of the most iconic of the Civil Rights legend. His efforts remind me that representation is more important than ever. I’m thankful for the legacy of authenticity Mr. Charles has left and will be forever inspired by his work and dedication to the communities he has served.”
Editor’s Note: Richard Prince occasionally submits his column "Journal-isms" to "Media Matters." “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms” originates from Washington. It began in print before most of us knew what the internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a “column.” Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
Facebook users: “Like” “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms” on Facebook.
Follow Richard Prince on Twitter @princeeditor.