Thomas E. Askew: Former Slave, Professional Photographer

Thomas E. Askew: Former Slave, Professional Photographer

Thomas E. Askew, self-portrait, 1899; portrait of the Summit Avenue Ensemble. Thomas E. Askew's photography studio was on Summit Avenue, 1899/1900; young girl, 1899/1900 [PHOTOS: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]

Written by Shaun La, New York, New York

Thomas E. Askew's photography has a priceless contemplative power in a world that continues tiptoeing around the race conversation. Born in the 19th century, when racism was public, cruel & politically correct, Askew being able to construct a career in photography is remarkable in itself: Being a former slave who became self-made makes his life seem liberating outside of just being a photographer. 

In the 1880's, Askew gained his start of the photographic process while being employed as a printer for C.W. Motes in Atlanta, Georgia.  C.W. Motes was a photographic studio owned by Columbus Washington Motes and was opened for business in the early 1870's: They specialized in photographic portraits of people dressed in their best clothing which was distributed through cabinet cards.

Askew’s position as a printer would be a pipeline for anyone wanting to learn about photography, which was around 55 years old, and operate the business side of a professional photography studio.  It would be of no surprise why he would eventually find the confidence to open his own studio in the Northwest area of Atlanta, Georgia.

Askew's independence as a photographer and business owner in the late 1890's exemplifies an outcome to the Reconstruction Period, the rising of the 20th century, and his connection of being born into slavery.  One could only imagine the evocative and societal experiences absorbing Askew who endured slavery to readjust as a free man and find the foundation to grow as a Black professional photographer.  He had to know firsthand the stinging stagnation that comes with overt racism before and after the Civil War.

His lens photographed portraits skillfully.  When you excel beyond the professional composition and distinguished printing techniques (which could be attributed to his time as a professional printer), you can see some realities of Black people as a family unit or a Black individual being prideful.  The tidy suits that the Summit Avenue Ensemble are wearing, musicians looking sharp and at ease with their instruments, or the quiet moment of a person dressed well and looking into Askew's camera apparatus.  Askew photographed Black professionals, the crux of Black civilization existing outside of the racist parameters that did not want any part of the Black experience.  From nurses, business owners, reverends, Askew's photography shows education, entrepreneurship, religion and a rationale of the Black middle class being productive, at a when black professionals desperately needed to see themselves as such.

This mirror of professionalism within Askew's photography had to be one of the reasons why W.E.B. Du Bois, Daniel A.P. Murray, and Thomas Calloway placed some of his photographic works into The Exhibition of American Negroes in France, in 1900.  Du Bois and Murray were gravitating with establishing a compilation of visuals & facts of Blacks in the United States being educated, professional, business owners in their own neighborhoods: It was a contrasting enlightenment, branching away from Blacks being photographed as slaves, tending crops on a plantation. 

The Exhibition of American Negroes had an international agenda about Black Americans (called Negros at the time) being way more brilliant than the stereotypes that oppression intentionally mapped out for the Black race.  Askew's photography being within this collection of hundreds of photographs of America-living Black expounds why a former slave, Black photographer found a reflective way to free generations of Blacks after him, with this medium called photography; it is a medium that we take for granted in today's time.  

 Shaun La is a photographer and writer out of New York, New York.  As a writer, he has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura, Film Shooters Collective, Art Photo Feature, Emulsive & other media outlets.  His work, including photography taken with film cameras only, can be viewed  at: