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

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Samantha Cortez says:

    Mr. Don as I remember him, was the neighbor who owned the building next to the building I lived in. I grew up in 105 West 117th street Apt #2. My mother, my little sister & me moved in September 2006, I would be turning 7 not to long after we moved in. Mr.Don ,to me a little 7 year old girl ,was a strange and peculiar old man. He always would sit on the top stoop of his building from early in the morning when we left for school and would be there when we came back. Some time after he gave me and my little sister these huge Pokémon plushies that we loved.

    As my sister and I got older, my sister was a little bit more timid then I was and didn’t really take a liking to Mr.Don, but that’s just the way my sister is DON’T take any meaning to it. As for me on the other hand, I would always say hello to Mr.Don and he was one to TALK… me at 13 years old really didn’t care about what he had to say but I still listened. I don’t remember much of what he talked about but I hope he appreciated the ear he got to chew off.

    In my own household we had lots of hectic events going on so as the years went on I missed out on Mr.Don because I was growing up and he wasn’t around much anymore. In 2014 or 2015 I remember a huge termite infestation in me and my sisters room we freaked out and didn’t sleep in there for months, now as I looked back and remembering the conversation between adults and how it was coming from Mr.Don’s Building. Now that I’m older I realized that these termites weren’t just coming from his building but they were coming because Mr.Don hadn’t been there in so long.

    My parents along divorce, sold our home and split the money. Today is October 14, 2021, I am now 21 and soon to be 22 in less then a month and a mother of a 13 month old. I searched online to see the house that I grew up in flipped and sold for less on the market.

    I get curious about Mr.Dons building and I find out that they put his building up for close to 4 million dollars on the market and it shocks me because one thing I remember hearing about Mr.Don is that he never wanted to sell his building (Let me tell ya I was a nosey little girl). So on these marketing websites I find Mr.Don’s legal name “Don Hogan Charles“ and I see he passed away in 2017, it puts me kind of down because of the minor but memorable role Mr.Don played in my childhood. And as I write this I can’t help but get emotional and cry, because now I’m a mother and an adult on my own with my son living in Puerto Rico doing my best maybe not to provide everything I had growing up but definitely to give my son the emotional affection I needed growing up .

    I start to read about the life Mr.Don had and let me tell y’all I would never thought in my own mind that this viejo was this FINE. Even though I can never experience what he went threw in the prime of his age, I think it’s amazing all the things he accomplished. It makes so much sense of why we could chew off an ear because that man worked for the NEW YORK TIMES. It gives me hope and determination in my life knowing that if Mr.Don made a memorable life for himself I know I can do the same for me and my son.

    Thank You Mr.Don for always saying hello to me and my sister even though you always got our names mixed up, thank you for the small talk. God bless you Mr.Don and please watch over my skies.

    1. pammyv02 says:

      Thank you for sharing your story with me. It means a lot. He is an inspiration to a lot us.

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