Hooks Brothers Photography Documented Black Memphis

Frederick Douglass wrote multiple essays on the power of photography to shape perceptions about race. He posited that the medium would be a great liberator of black Americans, allowing them to control their own narrative. Thus, for Black History Month, to understand the black experience in Memphis, we’re highlighting some of the earliest influential figures in the art form of photography in Memphis. We’re doing so with the help of Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, Professor of Art History at the University of Memphis Department of Art.

The Hooks Brothers Photographers by Dr. Earnestine Jenkins

It has been said that every black family in Memphis has a Hooks Bros. photograph.

Robert and Henry Hooks opened a family run photography business that endured in Memphis from 1906 until the 1970s. During the 1940s the studio was taken over by their sons, Charles and Henry Hooks. Hooks Bros. photographs document a rich, in-depth, and complex visual record of African American culture in the Mid-South that no longer exist, for the beautiful images reveal a hidden transcript, the world of segregated Memphis. 

Over a period of seventy-six years, the Hooks brothers preserved the totality of black middle-class family life in a large urban setting. Their pictures are stories about schools and graduations, weddings, family occasions, birthday parties, social events, social and fraternal organizations, neighborhood associations, celebratory events like the Cotton Makers Jubilee, amateur athletes and professional sports, as well as musicians associated with the city’s musical heritage. These images document the significance of the sacred and the social life of the church in black middle-class culture in Memphis. They also record the history of black businesses like Universal Life Insurance Company, Tri-State Bank, as well as the black newspapers, the Memphis World, and the Tri-State Defender

Beale and Hernando looking east on Beale Street toward the entertainment district, c.1915
Known as the ‘Main Street of Black America,’ Beale Street was the epicenter of African American life and culture by 1915. It was the center of religious and social life, politics and business. Beale Street business and entertainment district was crowded with dry goods and clothing stores, banks, barber shops, churches, pawn shops, hotels, pool halls, blues joints and theaters, sharing space with offices for African American lawyers, doctors, dentists, photographers, and real estate brokers. Its multi-ethnic mix of residents and businesses included Greeks, Chinese, Italian, Irish, German, and French merchants.

The local and social history of Memphis preserved in Hooks Bros. photographs includes military history, documenting black Memphians’ military service and participation in World War I and World War II, as well as support of the war effort in Red Cross service and bond drives. The portraits of many prominent leaders is a distinctive category of Hooks Bros. photographs. They developed a manner of capturing the character and social position of black male leaders and celebrities, always picturing the individual in settings, and with objects related to his profession or role in the black community. 

W.C. Handy, ‘Father of the Blues,’ 1920s
Handy wrote his best-known compositions while living in Memphis, including ‘Memphis Blues,’ St. Louis Blues,’ and Beale Street Blues.’

It has been said that every black family in Memphis has a Hooks Bros. photograph. The statement is a testament to the visual impact and historical significance of these images. They are extraordinary photographic histories of the black communities in Memphis. However, the astounding depth and breadth of the visual record over a long period of time makes them invaluable as a portrait of the broad spectrum of African American culture at a specific time and place in American history.

All photographs in this article from Department of Art-University of Memphis Collection.

In keeping with the themes of representation and the power of photography, we recommend checking out P H T G R P H S, an exhibition featuring the recent works of Lester Merriweather and Lawrence Matthews. The exhibition opens at The CMPLX on Friday, February 8.

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