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

Sometimes a picture without color can tell you a thousand words, but a portrait of a colored man, woman or child without color can tell a million.

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

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

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

It’s because he captured the raw hardship, piercing pain and unbridled happiness of Houston’s black community through the lens of his camera.

Photo taken by Earlie Hudnall Jr. (Earlie Hudnall Jr)

Observing the photographer’s famous studio in Houston’s Third Ward is like stepping 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.

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“The communities were tight and concise. We relied on each other, and that was the beauty of my community,” Hudnall said. “I found remnants of it in parts of Houston and everywhere I intended to go.”

Photo taken by Earlie Hudnall Jr. (Earlie Hudnall Jr)

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

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

When her parents were busy, Hudnall would go by her grandmother Bonnie Jean’s house, listening to old stories.

The photographer heard many stories 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 said to my siblings and me, ‘Go get Gran’s album.’ When we opened it, there was a newspaper clipping of his [Jesse L. Brown] photo and what unfortunately happened to him during the Korean War [Brown died a hero at 24 on December 4, 1950]“, said Hudnall.

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From then on, Hudnall began to understand, from an early age, the importance of documenting one’s community and the importance of who one is and how one lives.

“It was important to shed some light on what drives a person to move, to strive, and to become so inventive in their own way of surviving,” Hudnall said.

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

Throughout his time at TSU, Hudnall bonded with the Tiger family and colleagues like his longtime friend Ray Carrington III, as well as other notable academic figures like Dr. Thomas F. Freeman and the Dr. John Biggers.

Dr. Freeman recruited Hudnall to shoot photos for the Model Cities program, which allowed him to photograph various neighborhoods in Houston (Trinity Gardens, Sunnyside, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards).

However, Hudnall discovered reminders of his own life in these Houston enclaves that prompted the photographer to capture the simple but memorable moments of the day-to-day life.

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

Photo taken by Earlie Hudnall Jr. (Earlie Hudnall Jr)
Photo taken by Earlie Hudnall Jr. (Earlie Hudnall Jr)

Hudnall depicted black people around the world at peace, celebrating special occasions, children having fun in the summer, and people dressed in their Sunday best.

Thus, the seeds of his work blossomed. Each flower showcased its work and the leaves provided the vision that came to fruition.

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

Even more remarkably, Hudnall’s work had an impact on how African-American culture should be portrayed.

James Laxton, director of photography for Moonlightwhich won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017, cited Hudnall’s work as inspiration for portraying black people in the film.

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

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KPRC 2 partners with Texas Southern University throughout February for a celebration of Houston’s Black History. Students from TSU’s School of Communication and members of @KTSU_2 “The Voice” online team provide content for the @kprc2 Instagram account and the station’s other digital platforms. Posts and articles have been researched and produced exclusively by TSU students under the supervision of their faculty at the School of Communication and the KPRC 2 Digital Team. Content from student journalists will be published throughout February 2022 on click2houston.com/blackhistory.


About the Author

Isaiah Robinson (Image courtesy of Isaiah Robinson)

Isaiah Robinson is a TSU writer who aims to capture the reader’s mind through puns while charmingly playing on his heartstrings.

About the Video Journalist

Jonas Baker (Image courtesy of Jonah Baker)

Jonah Baker is a multimedia journalist who believes that if we just take a moment to talk, we’ll find we have a lot more in common.

Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston – All Rights Reserved.

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