Robert Houston: “A Photographer Who Shot from the Heart”

BEFORE THERE WAS the potent imagery of Afrofuturism, Vibe magazine, or hip-hop, there was Robert Houston capturing the soul of a people through his lens. At least that’s how Renaissance man Gordon Parks saw it, and he said so. Along with Howard Bingham, Carrie Mae Weems, Chester Higgins, and other visionary photographers at the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the Black Arts Movement, Houston revealed a new vision of African American life. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Houston left his job to become a full-time documentary photographer. He would not travel to foreign lands or shoot sexy celebrities — he made a profession of virtue, focusing on the least of us. His steadfast gaze on his signature subject, one many prefer to avert their eyes from — poverty — was unflinching.

The work of Houston, who died in 2021, is prominently displayed in a Smithsonian exhibit entitled City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States,” proclaiming that “[o]ur aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” At the time, 19 percent of Americans — around 35 million people — were below the official poverty line. King realized how poverty impacted citizens beyond racial lines, so he organized a coalition to gather in May 1968 at the National Mall and “demand federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programs, and housing for the poor.” He invited members of Mexican American, American Indian, and Appalachian communities to accompany him (though he would be assassinated on April 4 prior to the assembly). Houston was there to chronicle the protest with his camera.

Robert Houston at the City of Hope exhibition at the Smithsonian.

“There was a kind of love there,” Houston would later say in an interview captured by the Smithsonian for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “A mutual respect, a sharing, and an understanding that everyone there had gone through the same thing. If they hadn’t already experienced poverty, they were in it, or about to step into it.” His mentor Gordon Parks would marvel at the work of his standout prodigy:

One finds him immersed in the problems of poverty and inhumanity. People of all colors who suffer those problems come and go, and at times they tend to disappear. But wherever their destination happens to be, Houston’s camera seems to be there waiting — ready to take another look.

Chester Higgins, a photographer for The New York Times, echoes these sentiments: “I love his sympathetic eye. A photographer who shot from the heart.”

Houston’s family, a coterie of wily and strong women, knew him as a great gentleman as well as a great photographer. In an age when the coarse and vulgar have vaulted to the top of our culture, Houston was a member of a rare and distinct breed: he was considerate and chivalrous. Perhaps most notably, he was a man who understood that life is about service to others, not just oneself. Nature provided Houston with exquisite gifts, rare opportunities, and an ambition to serve, and his service — to his community and to the world — was exemplary.

Houston’s niece, Tori Reid, a global storyteller in her own right who has worked with the homeless in Atlanta, recognizes his enduring influence. She takes an unmistakable pride in her uncle’s accomplishments, but even more so in the quality of his person. As she notes,

He was quiet. Perhaps, he was misunderstood. Spoke only when there was something of value and of worth to him, then he would speak and speak with power. He was very serious in what was important to him. It was a “still waters run deep” thing. He was a proud spirit and a fierce protector of his tribe. I remember all of this working with him as a photographer on the set of the film Once Upon a Time … When We Were Coloredand throughout his life.

Houston’s wife and lifelong partner Greta and their daughter Erika Grant offered stirring eulogies at his memorial service, with Grant reading some reminiscences by her late father:

I met a fine young lady named Greta, from Berkley, Virginia outside of the dining hall. From then on, we were inseparable, despite the distance when Greta transferred to design school in Richmond, Virginia. I knew this was my soulmate, when I found myself regularly hitchhiking from the Eastern Shore to Norfolk, VA, over four years.

I knew I found the one when I sent the ring and letter by mail to her parents, asking for her hand in marriage all while stationed at Ft Jackson, SC with the US Army. […] From our union of 63 years we created four wonderful children. As a family living in various north eastern states, I was exposed to various jobs which led me to hone my skills as a photographer and ignited my civil rights advocacy, leading me back to my first true love… Photography.

This was the journey of Robert Houston, highlighting the humanity of folk in black and white. His own light shone upon those in the dark, granting a dignity to the dispossessed. Houston’s work was singularly focused on social injustice, human rights, poverty, and homelessness in the United States. Like the other great warrior photographers of our movement, he captured our sense of who we are and woke up our consciousness with his fearless eye.

Coming out of the global pandemic, with its new generation of the dispossessed, Houston’s legacy remains eerily prescient. The United States and the world would do well to heed his call to bear witness: “Don’t look away — we’re talking about our lives and our souls here. They are precious. They are sacred. They are holy. They are you. They are me.” Houston’s steadfast gaze was burnished with compassion, warmth, and goodness, brilliantly capturing the light of our common humanity.

Robert Houston: November 13, 1935–April 26, 2021

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Patrick A. Howell is author of Dispatches from the Vanguard: The Global International African Arts Movement Versus Donald J. Trump (2020)as well as a debut book of poetry, Yes, We Be (2018). His essay “Trinidad” was published in The Repeater Book of Heroism earlier this year.

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Featured image © Robert Houston.

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