(This is one from the Way-Back Files — an interview with Harlem Renaissance photographer Louise E. Jefferson, March 1984.)
“Everything dovetails, you know. You have no idea how many kinds of information, picked up one place or another, will come in handy….A commercial artist must have an encyclopaedic mind – for you can never tell what you will be called on to depict or interpret.” -- Louise E. Jefferson in an interview with Opportunity magazine, 1947
Louise E. Jefferson is a hard lady to pin down. A talented graphic artist, illustrator and photographer, the first black person to ever do Voice of America, and a close friend of such Harlem Renaissance figures as sculptor Augusta Savage and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, she is oddly – and maddeningly – close-mouthed when she wants to be. She doesn’t like to be asked questions about dates, partly because she doesn’t want people to know how old she is (one of her stand-by lines is that she must be older than 65 because she’s retired) and partly because she prefers to think of things in “chunks of time” rather than in terms of actual dates. “Your mother,” she says with infinite scorn during an interview at the home that she has shared with her enormous and beloved white cat since 1972, “must’ve been frightened by a calendar.”
The Litchfield, Connecticut-based photographer doesn’t always take kindly to questions about her work either. She likes to downplay it all, especially the illustrations. “I don’t care much for illustrations,” she says shortly.
Other people do care considerably, however. Jonathan Bruce, director of the Community Renewal Team (CRT) of Greater Hartford, Inc. Craftery Gallery, and James A. Miller, Associate Professor of English and Intercultural Studies at Trinity College, have put together an exhibit of those illustrations. The exhibit, which contains a large number of pieces from Jefferson’s book The Decorative Arts of Africa (The Viking Press, 1973), opened at the Craftery gallery on Main Street on February 5 and will be running through March 30.
Jefferson, of course, makes her usual show of grumbling about the exhibit and everybody making her do it in the first place. She also spares a grumble or two for an upcoming exhibit of her photographs of Litchfield and New York. “I’m always busy,” Jefferson says. “I mean, anything’s work if you’d rather be doing something else.” Whether anybody ever really makes her do anything is another question altogether and one that she laughs at when it’s actually put to her. “Damn good question,” she admits. “I’m embarrassed….No, they sort of goose me into the deal. I like to think about what it is first – give it a good deal of thought.”
Jefferson, who will be honored by the Connecticut Historical Society this year, is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Her works have been shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, the New York Bank for Savings, the Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield, and Trinity’s Austin Arts Center. The illustrations in the Craftery exhibit have been selected from the cumulative results of her four trips to Africa between 1960 and 1972. (That first trip also led to Jefferson’s being asked to do the Voice of America program on account of her being the only black person -- actually one of the few people of any color -- traveling there to celebrate Ghana’s becoming a nation.)
“That’s from a photograph I took,” she says, glancing at an illustration of a 12-year-old Mangbetu tribe girl from northeastern Zaire. “You can’t do a lot of sketching in Africa like that. You can take field notes now….If I can sketch in a hurry, I bring field notes home, and then I have to write all over as to what I’m sketching so that I remember it when I do the finished work.” Sometimes, she adds, it takes her two or three attempts before she manages to get it all down on paper the way she really saw it.
Jefferson started out in typography, which her father Paul (himself a calligrapher for the U. S. Treasury Department) gave her a few rudimentary lessons in, and then moved on to cartography and calligraphy – “all those ‘phy’s,” as she puts it. She always loved drawing, and her father supplied her with all the paper she could possibly want. She trained herself as a photographer. She doesn’t remember exactly when she started but claims that she turned out her first successful photograph in 1940, when she was visiting the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The photograph -- which Jefferson still has carefully tucked away in her files, even though she speaks disparagingly of it -- shows a sad-eyed shabbily dressed boy who looks like he stumbled out of a Walker Evans shot. “Do you like it that much?” the photographer demands. The disbelief in her voice is very well done. “I wandered of the campus, trying to get the feel of Alabama, which I didn’t much like. I was on a back road, and I heard this whimpering. And there was this little boy sitting on someone’s steps, and I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘They won’t give me a penny,’ and he started crying all over again. I gave him a nickel, and that’s when he really did cry.” She laughs at the memory. “Gee whiz! A whole five-cent piece!”
She calls it her first real photograph because it was the first one she ever took that really felt like a photograph. “There’s a difference between a photograph and a snapshot,” she says, “and I hate snapshots. When I developed this and saw this, I said, ‘That’s not a snapshot, that’s a photograph.’”
She begins rooting through her files, grumbling some more but throwing out a tantalizing comment or two along the way. Just enough to hook you. “You don’t want to look at this stuff,” Jefferson remarks casually.
It’s worth being reeled in. There are photographs of Rosa Parks being finger-printed after her arrest; Eleanor Roosevelt (“I took such good pictures of her,” Jefferson remarks thoughtfully), Carl Rowan, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, and Louie Armstrong. She laughs at the shot of Calloway with his back to the camera. “That’s his background,” she hoots gently. She softens as she studies the Armstrong photograph, letting her genuine pride in it show for a second. “I still think I took the best picture of Louie Armstrong that’s ever been taken.”
On the walls of her workroom are a slew of photographs of Harlem Renaissance figures, some of them taken by Jefferson. She claims she came to New York in the early 1940s. Miller, the show’s curator, differs with her on this point, however. He says that the names figuring in her stories -- and the fact that the Harlem Renaissance had pretty much ended by 1940 – make it much more likely that she arrived in the city a decade earlier.
Jefferson’ll give you two different reasons for her going to the city in the first place. One is that she figured she might as well see if she could make it as a photographer and an illustrator in New York because if she couldn’t make it there, she wouldn’t be able to anywhere. The other – which is, on the whole, the better story – is that she came to New York to visit friends, was robbed, and ended up staying rather than wiring home for money.
“I went to spend 10 days,” she recalls laughingly. “I had just bought what I knew was the most beautiful raccoon coat in the world….I put all the money I had in that pocket. Now, this particular day – it’s in February, now – I decided to visit [activist and writer] Pauli [Murray, a good friend of hers] to see what she was writing, and I’m in the street, showing off…leather jacket and about 45 cents in my pocket. I left the raccoon coat home with all the paper money in it.” When she returned to her room to get some books for Murray, she found both coat and money gone. “I never went back home to live. I couldn’t face the family.”
Whichever story is true, Jefferson ended up staying in New York for at least 26 years, working as the art director of the Friendship Press (the publishing agent of the National Conferences of Churches) from 1942 to 1968. She studied graphic arts at Columbia University and fine arts at Hunter College but took degrees from neither. She worked in the Harlem Artists Guild with Savage, who was extremely active in the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the 40s.
Savage was only one of the Harlem Renaissance figures whom Jefferson was friendly with. “You name `em all, and I met `em,” she says. Langston Hughes was “a doll” and Countee Cullen somebody whom she felt “very close” to. She gets up to find some copies of Cullen’s poems, which she bound in leather herself -- and which are inscribed “To Lou Jefferson, Cordially, Countee Cullen” – and a photo. “Here’s a picture of Countee,” Jefferson laughs, “on the lawn over there in a robe – he’s just gotten up, and he’s pretending he’s playing golf. He couldn’t tell you whether the ball was round or elliptical.”
When pressed for actual stories about these folks, however, she balks, protesting that the ones she knows are already in the books. What she does like to reflect back on is “Harlem as such. It was safe, comfortable, clean….Nothing like it today, nothing like it anywhere. The theaters were all doing well. There is no such thing as a theater in Harlem now, no such thing. There were fine stores on 125th Street, now which is a jungle – fine stores.” Jefferson takes a drag on her cigarette. “There were four theaters on one block….Night shows. It was a wonderful era.”
And that’s all she will tell you. You’re left with all the bits and pieces and contradictions that make up Lou Jefferson and a strong sense that you haven’t gotten even half her real story. “Just call it fiction,” she says. She shrugs. “It’s all fiction. Nobody’s ever going to believe all the things that have happened to me.”