Baltimore-based photographer Robert Houston, 78, has been documenting civil rights struggles, poverty, and street life since 1965. He's a former LIFE photojournalist and stringer for the Black Star photo agency whose work has also appeared in international publications like Pravda in Russia. During the late '60s Houston covered the freedom rallies in Baltimore and Boston and the Poor People's Campaign in Washington D.C., where he lived with the protesters in the so-called "Resurrection City" for almost a month. Counting iconic photographer Gordon Parks among his friends, Houston now lives a few blocks from where he was born in East Baltimore. His work will be on view through Dec. 14 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. The show, Simple Stories: The Photography of Robert Houston, was curated by students of UMBC's Museum Studies Class.
City Paper: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer professionally?
Robert Houston: When Dr. King was assassinated-I know this was it. I had to do something. 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 went to D.C. to shoot the Poor People's Campaign.
CP: Can you describe the campaign?
RH: People of all races, nationalities, genders gathered in D.C. to fight for justice, equal opportunity, and jobs. They did this because this is what Dr. King had come up with prior to his assassination. We were there for six weeks. I was living [in] the tents and [in] the mud with them. That was my gimmick to get an assignment. I was hired by Black Star, the international photo agency, to photograph from the inside out. Most photographers there were from all over the world and were going to stand around and shoot in. I was there shooting out.
CP: Was the work ever published?
RH: No, because at the same time I was there in the tent city, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. We got little, if any publicity. All the news photographers left to cover that. That's why it's rare now to find any photos from that era.
CP: Did you ever shoot the civil rights movement down South?
RH: I didn't go down South because at the time I was living in Boston and we had two children and my wife was pregnant with the third child. For another reason-what was I going to go South for? The fight was necessary everywhere. If you didn't have a sponsor or a paper backing you, who was going to see your work? Though I had Black Star and, at the time, LIFE, they weren't likely to send me at the time.
CP: How did you meet Gordon Parks?
RH: I wrote him a letter in '66, then I went to Time-Life in [New York City] in '67. [At the building] something divine happened. 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.
CP: In Parks' autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, he talks about the discrimination against black photographers by news organizations and the public. Did you experience any discrimination here in Baltimore or in D.C. when you were shooting?
RH: Oh yes. When I moved back here in 1973, I had my book published, had shot for LIFE, and was shooting for the Wilmington News Journal. I sent my resume to the National Geographic in Washington. They saw my work and everything was great. Until they saw my face. You know what the editor said to me? The guy actually said, "We like your work but there's one requirement that all our photographers must fulfill." I thought, OK, what's this one going to be? He said, "Each of our photographers must be fluent in at least five languages." I said thank you, took my photos, and left. At the same time, I found out that The Sun's only black photographer was just assigned black events and debutante balls. Not sports or editorial. I went to the News-American. The photo editor there said, "I love your work, but we don't have a black photographer here, and I don't see that changing in the near future." A few months later, the same guys called me and said he wanted me to shoot an antebellum day at an AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church. When I asked why me, he said, "The white photographers don't want to cover it."
CP: What civil rights struggles do you think photographers should focus on today?
RH: Domestic. We need [that], and I encourage the female photographers to get more active. They've been passive far too long.
CP: What's your opinion of photography now?
RH: I think anytime anything is available to anyone, it's not going to be very good for very long. The [Chicago] Sun-Times got rid of the whole [photography] staff. The work is going to be substandard and no one is going to get anything out of it but the paper. It's a con game. The market is flooded and quality suffers.
CP: Your current show opening at the Creative Alliance was curated by students. What advice would you give those students about being a photographer today?
RH: Learn all you can and practice. But you have got to have a gimmick. What else can you shoot that no one else can? What have you seen that no one else speaks of? You go to the rallies or concerts and shoot? So what? So did everyone else. You have to do something special. The president of Black Star said to me, "This is your next move. You're better than good. But don't pack up and come to New York. Everyone up here with a camera is good. If you come up here, New York will eat you alive. Go home. Improve your craft and when you are good enough, New York will call you. Then come. And New York will lay herself at your feet. It's better to be a big fish in a little pond than a big fish in the ocean."
CP: How do you want to be remembered?
RH: I want to be remembered as Bob Houston. Man. Husband. Father. Photographer. Black.
The Creative Alliance hosts an opening reception for Simple Stories: The Photography of Robert Houston on Dec. 7 at 5:30 p.m.; He speaks there on Dec. 12 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, please visit creativealliance.org.
To see more of Houston's work, go to http://photos.citypaper.com/index.php/the-photography-of-robert-houston.