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Through the Lens : Guy Crowder started his own photo agency in the '60s. An exhibit of his work offers a tour of some of the African-American community's most important historical events.

February 28, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Guy Crowder started taking photographs in the early 1960s, little did he know that he would come to meet six Presidents. That he would be standing on the podium next to Sen. Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel moments before the Democratic presidential candidate 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. As a black man, he couldn't get a job at that time with mainstream newspapers or the wire services. "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 used the closed doors to fire up an entrepreneurial spirit within him. He opened 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. About 150 of his photographs depicting local and national dignitaries in the spheres of politics, sports and entertainment are on view in the exhibit, 'Camera and Community: A Celebration by Guy R. Crowder," at Cal State Northridge's Art Galleries. (The exhibit runs through March 27 at the gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Information: (818) 885-2226.)

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 who is also 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 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 (former Supervisor) 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 1977 book signing at the May Co. in Crenshaw Center, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at a 1983 USC Moot Court competition, Coretta Scott King on a 1972 visit to the 92nd Street School and Wynton Marsalis with children at Baldwin Hills School in 1989.

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.

"He kept bugging me about getting involved," Crowder said, "so I started running around with him. He had connections with a lot of newspapers, especially the Los Angeles Sentinel, and with business people, some political leaders--mainly church people. It seemed exciting, so I went back to school and started studying more on it. He got the shyness out of me."

In those early days, Crowder said he "had a police radio in my car and I used to go to all the accidents, the shootings, you name it. I would ride till 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. I had a family to feed and I was hungry."

On weekends, he would shoot a high school game and maybe a Laker game Friday night, a USC football game Saturday, a junior college football game Saturday night and a Rams game Sunday.

Sunday nights, he would be in his South-Central Los Angeles garage developing the pictures, which he'd then distribute to several newspapers including Tempo, West Coast News, the Metropolitan Gazette, the Sentinel and the Southwest Wave.

Crowder credits Jesse Unruh, then the speaker of the California Assembly, and Frank Holoman for getting his business rolling. Holoman worked for Unruh, owned the newspaper Tempo and became an assemblyman himself.

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