By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
A picture is worth a thousand words, and for decades photos depicting Black life have been marvels to behold. For years celebrated photographer Roy Lewis has been taking photos documenting the African American experience that have been seen by people both nationally and globally.
Lewis has not only been taking photographs, he has also ventured into film and documentaries. Most recently he was in Chicago to premiere his film about the late Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. Lewis doesn’t just stop there. His involvement in “The Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shards, and the Legacy of Black Power” exhibition further confirms his role as a “chronicler of Black Life.”
In 1967, a group of artists formed an organization to bring public art to their African-American community. These works became a worldwide phenomenon or the catalyst redefining how people protested globally. The art created by this group of artists was called “The Wall of Respect,” which was located on a building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. This exhibition, which included work by Lewis, was recently displayed at the Chicago Cultural Center.
As a panelist during the opening of the exhibition, Lewis said: “After 50 years the spirit of ‘The Wall of Respect’ still lives. When you walk into the exhibit, you feel as though you just turned the corner at 43rd & Langley and what you heard and read about is there in front of you.” (The Crusader covered the “The Wall of Respect” extensively in its March 17, 2017 edition).
Lewis was born 80 years ago in Natchez, Mississippi, and grew up on a plantation, as his father toiled as a sharecropper. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. After graduating from high school in 1956, he relocated to Chicago and worked in the subscription department at Johnson Publishing Company. Soon after, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and while still enlisted he purchased his first camera—an old Kodak Brownie.
Lewis mentioned his early exposure to artists like Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, who co-wrote the 1955 “Sweet Flypaper of Life,” which is a collection of photographs by DeCarava with text by Hughes. He also names the renowned photographer, writer, musician and film director Gordon Parks as an influence. “I was impressed by others, and I wanted to get out into the street and start taking photographs.”
Eventually, he upped his camera game. “My first professional camera was a 35-mm Ricoh that I bought from a fellow soldier for $25, and the progression from taking photos while in high school to being at Johnson Publishing was exciting. I could see stories and photographs being developed and watch others complete the photography,” Lewis said. “Many times people don’t get to see the entire process. I felt like I was a part of a big thing.”
And with that, after returning from his military service, Lewis was off to a celebrated career. “There was much going on in the early 1960s in Chicago, with many changes and cultural events,” Lewis added. “It was the beginning of the civil rights movement, and because I was on the streets, I was able to contribute photos to Ebony and Jet that documented this wave of activity.” His first published photo for Jet was one that he took of jazz great Thelonious Monk in 1964.
The scene was much different than it is now, Lewis added. “During that period, photos were actually bringing information about what was going on to the people. They were a powerful testament of events and were a crucial service to community members.”
During the mid-1960s and for the next decade, Lewis covered a wide spectrum of Chicago figures, including Black Panther Fred Hampton, Oscar Brown, Jr. and the Blackstone Rangers. In 1964, he went to Africa and then again in 1974 when he filmed the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight. Later, this video would be featured in the 1996 “When We Were Kings” documentary about the historic championship fight in Zaire.
In 1968, Lewis left Johnson Publishing and later landed a job in the film department at Northeastern Illinois University, where he taught students on the West Side. “I would take students out every day and we would shoot photos, process the film and make the prints,” he said. “I learned that photography is a great way to open people’s eyes up to their own environment.”
In 1973, Lewis moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Washington Informer. This newspaper and others that comprise the Black Press or the National Newspaper Publishers Association have long benefited from Lewis’ work. Many photos that first appeared in the Black Press are undoubtedly displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. Lewis says that he enjoys visiting the museum for its role in preserving history. “I look at photographs as being able to freeze moments in time, which allows people to be able to look at it over and over again.”
In 1975, Lewis began work on “River Road on the Mississippi,” a pictorial book focusing on the African-American people, life and culture along the Mississippi River. In 1995, his work was featured in the “Million Man March,” a book highlighting the events of that historic day. Lewis also contributed work to the widely acclaimed 1995 photo book project “Songs of My People.” Other notable accomplishments for Lewis: He videotaped and interviewed the Nation of Islam leader the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, which was featured in the film “A Nation of Common Sense.” He has also interviewed Iceberg Slim for “Black Journal,” a public affairs television program, which was a precursor to “60 Minutes.” In 2011, “Everywhere with Roy Lewis,” a touring exhibit, was on display at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago
Lewis and his family are proud of his career, and in the world of the Internet, Photoshop and Instagram, his work is still in demand. “When working, I always try to see what is happening and figure out what I want people to learn from a particular photograph,” he said. “A camera can get you into places where money cannot, and my camera has opened the door to many important events.”
Readers can look forward to the “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago” book due out by Northwestern University Press later this fall.