Robert H. McNeill was born in Washington, D.C., in 1917. As a student at Howard University, he began photographing varsity sports events for Howard publications. He realized that it was possible to make a living in photography when pictures he took of Jesse Owens, visiting Howard in 1936, were published in the next issue of every Washington newspaper. That year he left Howard to study photography full time and graduated from the New York Institute of Photography in 1938.That same year he was appointed as photographic consultant to the Federal Writer’s Project, where, he traveled throughout Virginia capturing his subjects in a variety of endeavors for the books The Virginia Guide and The Negro in Virginia, both published in 1940. His photography during this period has been favorably compared by critics to the ground-breaking photo-documentary work of Gordon Parks.
When he finished his tour through Virginia, he established a photography studio in Washington in the heart of the vibrant Shaw community He was subsequently drafted into the Army during World War II and served at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, and in an ammunition ordinance company on Guadalcanal, ending the war with a commission as a Second Lieutenant. When he returned to Washington, he continued his freelance and studio business which supplied photographs of East Coast news and sporting events to five major black weekly newspapers. He was also commissioned by the United Negro College Fund to compile more than 250 photographs documenting the efforts of eleven of its member colleges to establish post-war veterans’ educational programs.
Between 1950 and 1956 he was a staff photographer to several military departments and in 1956 became a photographer for the Department of State. He served during the tenure of six Secretaries of State and took the official photographs of Secretaries Rusk, Kissinger and Vance. In 1978, Mr. McNeill retired from the State Department as Chief of the Photography Branch, Audio-Visual Services Division. Mr. McNeill was also a retired Major in the U.S. Army Reserve.
In recent years, Mr. McNeill’s photographs have been widely exhibited due largely to the efforts of McArthur Fellowship Award Winner Debra Willis, who while working with the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum Project, recognized McNeill’s artistry and vision. His work was presented in 1983 and 1984 in A Century of Black Photographers, a national traveling exhibit sponsored by the Rhode Island Institute of Design. In 1985, his photographs were shown in Chicago and Los Angeles as a part of the exhibit, The Black Photographer: An American View. In Washington, his work was on exhibit at the Sumner School in 1989 and at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum in 1991. His work was also a part of the 1992 exhibit To Achieve These Rights, a photographic essay on desegregation in Washington. In 1994 and 1995, his photographs were featured in the heralded exhibit, Free Within Ourselves, at the National Museum of American Art, and in 1996, a large body of his work was featured in Visual Journal, a major exhibition of the Smithsonian’s Center for African American History and Culture. In the fall of 1997, Mr. McNeill’s photographs of his boyhood neighborhood formed a major part of the Washington Historical Society’s Remembering “U” Street street-arts project.
His photographs of Washington in the 1930s and 40s have also have been featured in local television documentaries, on Black Entertainment Television, and were the focus of a German public television documentary in early 1998. Mr. McNeill’s photographs have also been a significant resource for The Washington Post Magazine’s former feature “Backlight”, which highlighted unique moments in Washington history. Mr. McNeill has spoken and lectured on Washington during the 1930s and 40s, including an appearance on National Public Radio. He had also been a lecturer and photo competition judge for the Greater Washington Council of Camera Clubs.
In 1997, Mr. McNeill was selected as Photographer of the Year by the Fotocraft Camera Club of Washington, and received the Maurice Sorrell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Exposure Group of Washington, in 1998.
More recent projects featuring his photography have been:
Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890’s to the Present, Debra Willis’ book and traveling exhibit which opened at the Tish School of the Arts, NYU, (October 2009, closing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts July 27, 2014); and
Smithsonian Museum of American Art: African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, April 27 – September 3, 2012.
His photographs were also featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit: One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and other Visions of the Great Movement North, April 3–September 7, 2015. http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1549
A collection of 16 his works, donated by the Washington Post Corporation, was acquired by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture for their permanent collection, one of which “Hammond Dance School” is on display. Other of his works have been used in the NMAAHC exhibit on fellow photographer Robert Scurlock, and in the Museum’s donation to the Google Cultural Institute’s world fashion digital exhibit.
Also on exhibit now at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (“The Sweat of their Face”) is his image of a stevedore taken in Richmond, Virginia in 1938 and, currently, his images can be seen in the WETA TV documentary “Bygone DC” which premiered on October 13th on the station.
Lexington Park Library Gallery
Robert H. McNeill (1917-2005)
Reception, Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Dec. 1, 2017 - Jan. 15, 2018
This Art Gallery is proof of the power of one woman’s hard work! Candy Cummings had a vision to create an exhibit space in the Lexington Park Library, which would display the artwork of local artists.
The Library Board agreed that this would enhance the library experience by exposing library customers to the beauty and power of original art.
In 2005, the Lexington Park Library Art Gallery was created and through Candy’s hard work and dedication her vision became a reality.
In 2014, the St. Mary’s County Arts Council agreed to take over the coordination of the Gallery and Candy donated funds to create an Arts Council Library Gallery Fund which will provide for its ongoing support.
One woman who has truly made a difference to our library and to our community.
If you are interested in displaying your art in the Lexington Park Library Art Gallery, contact Nell Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 240-309-4061
Make Art part of your next Library visit!
Check our the Library website for other programs and events