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PHOTOGRAPHY : Portraits of a Lifetime : Guy R. Crowder started his own Los Angeles photo agency in the '60s. An exhibit of his work offers a tour of the community's most important historical events and people.

February 12, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

When Guy Crowder started taking photographs in the early 1960s, little did he know that he would come to meet six U.S. presidents. That he would be standing on the podium next to Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel moments before Kennedy was assassinated. That he would cover Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, Muhammad Ali's fights, Motown's Supremes, Temptations and Four Tops, and Mayor Tom Bradley's 20 years in office.

Crowder began his photography career in South-Central Los Angeles, shooting high school football games, church events and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. And at that time, as a black man, he couldn't get a job with mainstream newspapers or the wire services, Associated Press and United Press International. "When I first started to apply as a photographer at the Los Angeles Times, the Herald Examiner, the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, AP and UPI, I was told from certain newspapers that I was overqualified," Crowder said. "There weren't any black photographers working for The Times or the Herald Examiner, especially the Herald Examiner."

He did not remain frustrated or bitter; instead, these closed doors fired up an entrepreneurial spirit within him. He decided to open his own business--"to make my own black UPI," he said--in which he would distribute photographs to several community newspapers that rarely had full-time staff photographers.

After 30 years in the community and on the road, Crowder has amassed 350,000 to 400,000 images that stand as a historical record of Los Angeles' African-American community. Nearly 150 of his photographs depicting local and national dignitaries in the spheres of politics, sports and entertainment will be on view beginning Sunday in the exhibit, "Camera and Community: A Celebration by Guy R. Crowder," at Cal State Northridge's Art Galleries.

The show was organized by CSUN's Center for Photojournalism & Visual History in conjunction with Black History Month, and made possible by Crowder's agreement to place his negatives in the center's archives. There, his work will be preserved and made available to CSUN students and the public.

"Guy has been privy to nearly every important event within the community because of his news service operation. I think he has the finest and most comprehensive single collection of the African-American community in Los Angeles over the last 30 years," said Kent Kirkton, a CSUN journalism professor, the center's director and show's curator.

Kirkton spent many late nights with Crowder and CSUN graduate student Jonathan Game in Crowder's Crenshaw-area studio, going through his files to select a reasonable number of images for the show that would accurately represent his enormous body of work.

"I think we did a good job, but you just can't do it with 140," Crowder said. "I could do a show of that many pictures on Mayor Bradley alone. Or Kenny Hahn alone. I can do that many on Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke."

One finds pictures of superstars here: Magic Johnson, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. But there are also photographs from a 1978 Easter parade, of author Alex Haley at a book signing at the May Co. in Crenshaw Center (1977), Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at a USC Moot Court competition (1983), Coretta Scott King at the 92nd Street School (1972) and Wynton Marsalis with children at Baldwin Hills School (1989).

Local politicians, including Bradley, former Supervisor Hahn, Burke, Rep. Maxine Waters and City Councilman Nate Holden, appear in photographs among colleagues and movers and shakers in other fields. Crowder also captured visits to the community by state and national figures such as George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Jordan, Jerry Brown, Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson. And there are a few images of the 1965 Watts riots and the Black Panther and Symbionese Liberation Army shootouts.

"Jonathan and I began looking at Guy's collection with I think what we would call a mainstream press perspective," Kirkton said. "By that, I mean we were thinking, what are the big events? Well, there's the Watts riots, there's the Panther shootout, there's the SLA shootout, there's this year's riots."

However, they said they realized those catastrophic events were only a small part of his collection.

"And frankly, they're not representative of the community," Kirkton said. "The real strength of this show is that it is an alternative to the view of the African-American community presented by the mainstream press, or just maybe our own perceptions of it. Maybe it's not fair laying it on the press, but if you're a reader of mainstream press, you mark the history of the black community with one set of events. And if you're a reader of the black press, you may well mark it with a different set of events."

Crowder, 53, a native of Beaumont, Tex., graduated from high school in Compton. He was encouraged to be a photographer by his father-in-law, a photographer who had a studio.

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