Self-portrait by Robert McNeill
African American, Documentary Photography, Federal Writers’ Project
Robert H. McNeill
Robert H. McNeill was a renowned photographer of Black life and culture from the 1930s through the 1970s. Born in 1917 in Washington, DC, to Dr. William C. McNeill, a physician and medical educator and Mary A. McNeill, a DC public school teacher and school board member, Robert H. McNeill learned photography while attending Dunbar High School. He continued his interest in photography while a pre-med student at Howard University for two years. At age 18, after selling one of his photographs to several D.C. and African American newspapers, he embarked on his life’s career as a photographer and left Howard in 1936. He then enrolled at the New York Institute of Photography.
Upon his graduation in 1938, he earned the attention of Sterling A. Brown, editor of Negro Affairs in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a New Deal initiative providing employment to writers and other creative workers. Brown hired McNeill, judging that the young African American photographer would be able to gain greater access to and provide more representative images of African American communities than white photographers. Over several weeks, McNeill shot several hundred photographs, while traveling around Virginia. His photographs are extraordinary for their formal composition as well as their dignified and honest portrayals of ordinary people engaged in their everyday jobs and activities as farmers, tobacco workers, stevedores, and in communal gatherings in the segregated South. They reflect his Several images were published in 1940 in the FWP books, The Virginia Guide and The Negro in Virginia.
Completing work for the FWP, McNeill returned to Washington and worked in his own photo studio for several years, documenting African American working class, middle class, and celebrity life in Washington, DC, and on the East Coast. After a brief interruption to serve in the Army during World War II, he returned to his photography business. In 1950, he became a staff photographer to several military departments, and eventually became a photographer for the U.S. State Department. In 1978, McNeill retired from the State Department as Chief of the Photography Branch, Audio-Visual Services Division.
In later years, McNeill lectured publicly, bringing his striking photographs of Washington’s African American communities, his FWP documentation, and his considerable skills to wider audiences and greater appreciation. His photographs have been displayed in national museum and gallery installations, including at the Smithsonian and Museum of Modern Art, and have been highlighted in television and radio documentaries, magazine articles and scholarly manuscripts.
Among his work of pertinence to folklore:
Robert McNeill 1938: A Collective Portrait of African American Life in Virginia https://www.vmfa.museum/exhibitions/exhibitions/robert-mcneill-african-american-life-virginia/
Lee, Roscoe, ed. The Negro in Virginia (1940) https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000340632