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Photographer’s work captures the soul of Houston’s Black community

Written by on February 26, 2022

By: Isaiah Robinson

Houston, TX— Sometimes, a picture without color can tell you a thousand words, but a portrait of a man, woman, or child of color with no color can tell a million.  

Looking at a photo of four Black children playing on the concrete playground of their urban enclave, one man with a camera captured the fullness of their innocence.

That man, Texas Southern University’s decorated photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr., made sure to capture every instance of their innocence.

Hudnall, who was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has been called a “national treasure.”

That’s because he has captured raw hardship, piercing pain, and unbridled happiness of Houston’s Black community through his camera lens.

To observe the celebrated photographer’s studio in Houston’s Third Ward is a journey back in time.

Four decades of Houston’s historically Black communities cover every square inch of Hudnall’s space.

Each photo is a reflection of his memories.

“The communities were tight and concise. We relied on one another, and that was the beauty of my community,” Hudnall said. “I found remnants of that in parts of Houston and everywhere I would intend to go.”

Growing up in Mississippi, Hudnall’s father was an amateur photographer who took pictures during his time in the military and the family.

“Whether it was on Easter Sundays or when we all had on new school clothes, he would line us up and flick the camera,” Hudnall said.

When his parents were busy, Hudnall would go next door to his grandmother Bonnie Jean’s home, listening to old stories.

The photographer heard many tales about his family and many others in his community including the story of the first African American Navy aviator Jesse L. Brown, also from Hudnall’s hometown.

“She told my siblings and I, ‘Go on and get Gran’s album.’ When we opened it, there was a newspaper clipping of his [Jesse L. Brown] picture and about what unfortunately happened to him in the Korean War [Brown died a hero at 24 on December 4, 1950],” Hudnall said.

From then on, Hudnall began to understand, at an early age, the importance of documenting his community and the significance of who one is and how one lives. 

“It was important to shed light on what causes a person to move, strive and become so inventive in his or her own way of survival,” Hundall said.

Earlie Hudnall Jr., photographer

Before boarding the Greyhound to leave his hometown bound for Houston, Texas, Hudnall was encouraged to head to TSU because of the art department’s stellar reputation.

Through his time at the TSU, Hudnall connected with the tiger family and colleagues like his longtime friend Ray Carrington III, plus other notable university figures like Dr. Thomas F. Freeman and Dr. John Biggers. 

Dr. Freeman recruited Hudnall to take photos for the Model Cities Program, which provided him a chance to photograph various Houston neighborhoods (Trinity Gardens, Sunnyside, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards). 

However, Hudnall discovered reminders of his own life in these Houston enclaves that influenced the photographer to capture the simple, yet, memorable moments of how one lives from day today. 

“I chose a very personable and sometimes lonely road to document the humanity of man and the universality of the human spirit,” Hudnall said.

Hudnall depicted Black people worldwide at peace, celebrating special occasions, children having a thrill in the summertime, and folks dressed in their Sunday finery.

Thus, the seeds of his labor blossomed. Each flower showcased his work and leaves provided the vision that thrived into fruition. 

Some of his illustrious photos were donated to public and private collections for institutions like the Smithsonian, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Even more noteworthy, Hudnall’s work has impacted how African American culture should be depicted. 

James Laxton, the cinematographer for Moonlight, which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2017, cited Hudnall’s work as inspiration for depicting Black people in the film.

Through the seeds of Hudnall’s imagery that blossomed delicately, his artistry allowed the viewer to see survival in its beauty, the authentic elegance of life, and its simplicity.