A Lost Archive of DC Life at MidcenturyHistorians in the News
tags: photography, African American history, urban history, Washington DC
The trash truck was coming.
I heard it grinding down MacArthur Boulevard NW toward the dumpster in which I stood up to my thighs in photo albums on a gloomy day in November 2009. No more than a few minutes remained to save some fragments of an unheralded national treasure, a photographic archive of mid-century America that documented cultural, civic and personal life in the nation’s capital from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The small blue albums contained 70 or so snapshots apiece, the life’s work of an unknown amateur photographer. There were as many as 500 albums. Doing some quick math, that’s roughly 35,000 photos. And right now, my goal was to rescue as many as possible. How to choose the ones to save? I seized volumes left and right, studying the neatly typed labels stuck to their spines. At random, I saw SPORTS: Field Hockey, Crew, Polo … Including Vice-President Nixon. Richard Nixon playing polo? A keeper!
Then I saw ENTERTAINMENT: JAZZ: Basie, Miles Davis. A tingle creeping up my spine, I opened it and there, chin thrust out in mid-argument, was the great trumpeter Miles, the King of Cool himself, standing across from an affable, portly man in an impeccable suit who had to be the famed pianist and bandleader Count Basie. This shot was snapped backstage at the D.C. Armory show of Oct. 18, 1959, I later learned—the date, location, and subject matter were meticulously penciled on the back. Two jazz masters, giants of American music, caught in one small black-and-white photograph.
I began scooping up armfuls of the albums and tossing them into the trunk of my car, vaulting in and out of the dumpster with an athletic ability I didn’t know I possessed. At last, the trash truck rumbled into the condominium parking lot where the photos had ended their years-long journey. I waved at the driver as I jumped out of the dumpster for the last time. He peered at me through the windshield, shaking his head. As I stood aside and watched, a lump building in my throat, all the photo albums I couldn’t rescue disappeared into the maw of history, in this case the lift-back of a scraped and battered Tenleytown Trash truck.
Out of the thousands of photographs tossed in the garbage—an archive on the order of Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier’s trove discovered stuffed in suitcases after her death in 2009 —I managed to rescue about 2,200, which is to say 32 albums’ worth, a few of which are presented to the public for the first time in this story.
Taken together, they compose a photographic record of America at the dawn of the civil rights era, images snapped by a man named Ray Honda, who had seemingly unlimited access to the great and the humble of the day. Who was this lost photographer?