Facial Hair Friday: Portrait of the Artist with a Mustache

This self portrait, with carefully groomed mustache in the center, is a glamorous photo of a hardworking, groundbreaking photographer. James Stephen “Steve” Wright was from a working-class family in Washington, DC. By the 1940s he was head of photographic operations for the Federal Works Agency.

But like many young black men at the time, he began at the very bottom of the career ladder, working at the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (FEAPW) as a messenger and chauffeur. However, unlike other young black men at time, Wright worked for FEAPW Administrator Harold Ickes, who fought battles over segregation and discrimination, and who hired like-minded people into his agency. Wright moved on to assembling newspaper clippings and eventually was recruited by the FEAPW photographic head Hyman Greenberg.

In an interview with Nicholas Natason, Wright recalled that “In those days, it was tough for a black man even to become a file clerk in the government . . . You had to mind your P’s and Q’s, because there were lower-level whites who resented the fact that you were doing photography at all and were waiting for you to stumble.”

Steve Wright, precedent-setting photographer for New Deal agencies and the Department of State, shown during his Federal Works Agency days.

But Wright was extremely good at his job; he was efficient, diplomatic and organized. As the New Deal picture units began to consolidate in the Federal Works Agency (FWA) photographic section, he traveled the country taking pictures for several agencies at the same time.

At 27, Wright became the Photographic Section head. He coordinated an operation that generated over 2,400 images a day. His six-man unit included another black photographer, Randolph MacDougall.

He also tackled a workflow problem that was racially charged: distributing the assignments. He told Natason that “I wanted to avoid the problem that Roger Smith faced at the OWI [News Bureau] where he was expected to do only the black coverages, and then felt that his work was being sabotaged [by whites] in the lab.” Instead, Wright arranged the workflow so that assignments were given to the photographer who was available at that moment, and that same photographer also did all the lab work. The subject matter—black or white—was not considered in the assignment.

Wright avoided being pigeonholed into photographing only black subjects, or photographing news from a “black angle” only. In 1945, he moved to the photographic lab at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he was one of the photographers loaned to the Department of State to cover the United National Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. Wright covered the full range of signing and speeches by all delegates. His skin color made him stand out: “In a way, being black was an advantage because I was noticed immediately, and if I was going to encounter a problem from security people, it was going to happen early on and get worked out then and there. So after the first day, everyone knew me and I went wherever I wanted.”

The assignment led into a 25-year career at the State Department. In 1957, Wright was appointed as Photographic Branch Chief by Fernleigh Graninger. He created State’s first central file on diplomatic personalities, events, and facilities.

Wright’s contribution to the State Department was enormous. Wright and fellow black photographers Robert MacNeill and Whitney Keith created over a third of the 100,000 images taken for the State Department from the late 1040s to the mid-1970s.

This blog post was adapted from Nicholas Natason’s article “From Sophie’s Alley to the White House: Rediscovering the Visions of Pioneering Black Government Photographers” in the Summer 1997 issue of Prologue magazine.

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