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Exploring the Legacy of the Black Star Photo Agency

A new book and exhibition from the Image Center at Toronto Metropolitan University look into the long and fabled history of the iconic Black Star Photo Agency. Founded in 1935, but having its hey-day during the golden age of print media and the picture magazines, the agency has had a profound influence on photojournalism, which can still be seen and felt today.

Black Star, the famed photo agency based in New York, has in many ways, shaped modern photojournalism. Over 80 years, the photographers who worked through Black Star have covered major events, those in power, and the daily lives of people around the globe through war and peace. Many of the famed photojournalists you can call to mind, from W. Eugene Smith to James Nachtwey, were shaped by working with Black Star.

But to those outside of photojournalism, and those who came of age in the field more recently, the name Black Star may not mean much. But a new exhibition and book, organized by the Image Center at Toronto Metropolitan University is looking to both revive the history of Black Star, and bring the storied history of the agency to back into the limelight.

The agency was established in December of 1935 by Ernest Mayer, Kurt Kornfeld, and Kurt Safranski. The Great Depression was in full swing, and because of a lack of tenants for the office space in New York City, the owners of the Graybar Building, which sits adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, offered the fledging photo agency an entire floor rent free for a year just so the building would have tenants.

Gene Daniels, Untitled (American performer Sammy Davis Jr. and Swedish actress May Britt, United States), 1960–1965, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

Mayer, Kornfeld, and Safranski were all German immigrants, having fled the country during the rise of the Nazi regime. They brought with them their connections to European photographers, negatives, and other talents. The men helped to introduce the idea of using multiple photographs together to tell a story, which was not a common practice at the time.

The agency the 3 men created quickly became a liaison between individual photographers and many outlets, including Life, Time, and Newsweek. And their stable of photographers grew to include some of the biggest names in photojournalism over the years.

But it was Howard Chapnick, an early employee of Black Star, who would, in many ways, turn the agency into the powerhouse that it would become.

Working for Black Star

“Black Star was really Howard Chapnick. He lived and breathed photojournalism” tells photojournalist Stephen Shames, who worked with Black Star from the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s. “Black Star was one of the major, if not the major, agency. I would spend time there. Howard really did everything he could to help you. I know if I was shooting a story, he would critique it and help edit it. He was really hands-on.”

Howard Chapnick first joined Black Star in 1940 after graduating from New York University. During World War II he served in the Air Force but returned to Black Star after his service. He built up and maintained a worldwide network of photographers and expanded the agency’s focus into books and photo essays. In 1964, Chapnick took full control of the agency, buying out the founders and becoming Black Star’s president, where he stayed for the next 25 years.

Chapnick was not just the director of Black Star, but also became a sort of father figure to those who worked for him. With his wife Janette, Black Star was in some ways a family run affair.

“Howard was a champion,” says photojournalist Donna Ferrato, who was a member of Black Star in the 1980’s. “He was bigger than life, in terms of an agency and how far they went out on the limb to help photographers, and how he raised his photographers. He was very fatherly with them. They were always a little bit jealous of each other. They were all jealous of each other. I’d say the boys were really competitive. And Howard had his hands full and trying to make them all feel like they were number one to him”

And Shames also remembers Chapnick fondly: “I came to New York in 1976, and Howard actually helped me find an apartment. I think he had a cousin who owned a building, and he got me an apartment. He really was more than just like an agent to his photographers. If he liked you, he was more like an uncle, a dad, a mentor, whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t just like ‘Oh, send me your pictures and I’m going to sell them.’ He really had a relationship with his photographers if they wanted.”

Nancy J. Pierce, Untitled (Black voter registration campaign, Charlotte, North Carolina, United States]), 1925–1927, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre
Lou Jacobs Jr., Untitled (Watts Rebellion, Los Angeles, California, United States), 1965, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre
Hilmar Pabel, Untitled (Youngsters protesting after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by five countries of the Warsaw Pact (the USSR, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Poland), Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1968, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

David Turnley, who wrote to Blind about his experiences working with Black Star in the 1980’s and 1990’s, summed it up this way: “Howard and Jeanette were respected by everyone they interacted with- and to be a part of their lives- made all of us feel greater. And we honored our relationship by mutually being inspired to try to do really meaningful work together, always with the intention of using photography to honor humanity.”

It was not just the warm manner that defined Chapnick. He was also a strong advocate for his photographers, doing everything in his power to both get them work, and getting them paid well for it. Because of Black Star’s location in New York City, it was close to the offices of all the major outlets, like Newsweek, Time, Life, and many other magazines, along with all the various book publishers, and even the major television networks. Chapnick had quick access for face-to-face meetings and was well known by all of them.

“He was a real advocate for the photographers who were breaking out of the ranks, taking risks, putting their lives on the line in war zones around the world. Howard did all the heavy lifting at Black Star, schlepping heavy portfolios and boxes of prints to show the editors of the magazines. He did everything in his power to secure major advances or money upfront, from the heads of the most important photography offices in NYC. He had a great sense of humor. He loved his wife Jeanette, who worked beside him at Black Star. He was as loyal to her as he was to beloved photographers. There was nothing that he would not give them to help us achieve our potential,” Ferrato continued.

Griffith J. “Griff” Davis, Untitled (Children parading, Liberia), 1950, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

In the late 1980’s, Howard Chapnick, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gerhrig’s disease, began to pull back from the agency due to his health. In 1994 he published The Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism, which contains his experience and insights into photojournalism, and giving advice to those just starting out. He died in 1996 at the age of 74 from complications from ALS. Janette passed away in 2007.

But his influence on photojournalism, and his legend, live on and cannot be underestimated. And for those who were fortunate to have been part of the Black Star family, it is something that continues to stay with them.

“The legacy that Howard and Jeanette Chapnick, and Black Star leave, is a belief in the power of photography to touch humanity, with the love, respect, and integrity that were so much a part of Howard and Jeanette’s lives together,” says David Turnley. ”I will always be honored to have worked with Howard, and Jeanette, and Black Star, and the incredible photographers, and staff with whom I had the privilege to be a part of.”

Black Star Comes to the Image Center

When Chapnick retired from Black Star. In 1989, his cousin Ben Chapnick, who had been executive vice-president from 1963 through 1989, became president of the agency. Under his directorship, which lasted till he passed away in 2021, Black Star began digitizing its picture library, returning all remaining negatives and transparencies to photographers or their estates, as it prepared to sell its picture library, which was completed in 2003.

With its library sold, Black Star no longer needed office space in Manhattan, and so it moved to White Plains, New York. There the agency continues to license reproductions rights for the work produced during the agency’s heyday.

John Launois, Untitled (“Cheetah” nightclub, New York City, New York, United States), 1967, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

Then, in 2005, Toronto Metropolitan University, which was formerly known as Ryerson University, acquired the massive archive of Black Star. The collection was gifted to the University by an anonymous donor, along with $7 million for the collection’s preservation, study, and exhibition.

The photographs are housed at The Image Center, Canada’s leading center for the research, teaching, and the exhibition of photography and related media that is part of Toronto Metropolitan University. 

“The Black Star Collection is one of the world’s most significant archives of photojournalism, with nearly 300,000 photographs by more than 6000 image makers,” Paul Roth, The Image Center ‘s Director and co-curator, says.

The Book and the Exhibition

The Image Center (IMC) has released the book Facing Black Star, which brings together national and international research to highlight the depth of the Black Star Collection. The book not only discusses the subjects portrayed in 100 photographs, but also explores the history of photojournalism.

The book is coedited by Thierry Gervais, the IMC’s head of research, and Vincent Lavoie, Professor of Art History at Université du Québec à Montréal. The two brought together the work of local, national, and international researchers ranging from graduate students to established scholars and curators to illuminate the broad range of the collection, from its record of the Nazis’ rise to power to its visual archive of climate change. Each contribution highlights methodological, epistemological, and political issues inherent to conducting research in photographic archives and collections. This includes indexing protocols and their impact on research, the photographic archive as a place of visibility and invisibility, and the photographic archive as a hermeneutic tool.

It also serves as a companion to the IMC’s exhibition Stories from the Picture Press: Black Star Publishing Co. & The Canadian Press which will be on view from September 13th through April 6 of 2024, though will be closed for the holidays from December 10th through January 16th. The exhibition will feature 35 stories about historic events, each story illuminating a different aspect of how photojournalists have worked to document newsworthy events and distribute photographs for publication. It will explore the important role that photo agencies played during the heyday of print photojournalism.

Black Star and The Canadian Press historically distributed photographs covering a wide range of subjects, including wars and protests, refugee migrations, environmental catastrophes, crimes and accidents, official portraits, and celebrity culture. Over time, both agencies assembled an inexhaustible stock of images for a variety of international clients. These clients were not just newspapers and magazines, but also book publishing companies, cultural institutions, and corporate organizations.

The IMC will also be hosting a series of free public programs related to the Black Star Collection that will take place this fall, including a public exhibition opening, along with talks, special tours, and a book launch event for Facing Black Star. The full list will be on their website here.

“Our latest book serves as a scholarly companion to our upcoming fall exhibition. Together these two projects are the fruit of a decade of research in the archive.” Roth says about the combined book and exhibition.

80 Years of Photojournalism on the Gallery Wall

“The idea behind the show was to try to show the mechanics of a photo agency. So for each story, we’re trying to show how the agency was working with the photographer, with the story, and with the publication,” IMC Exhibitions Curator Gaëlle Morel says.

But with the Black Star collection spanning 80 years, how does one begin to organize an exhibition of such an expansive collection? How do you start the research involved? And how do you narrow it down to 25 stories?

Morel adds: “With an archive of this size, the risk is that some photographs can get buried. Our goal was to illuminate how photojournalists and press agencies worked together to document the news and distribute images for publication, as well as to bring forward forgotten images to reveal new perspectives on past events. Visitors will see reportage both by renowned and lesser-known photographers, all of whom helped to define 20th-century photojournalism.” 

As she explains, it began with engaging her team to come up with different people and events that could be searched in the collection. And then the questions about the photographers themselves, and what work did they have from them?

Germaine Krull, Untitled [Convict houses, “Devil’s Island,” penal colony of Cayenne, French Guiana], 1941, gelatin silver print. Black Star Collection, The Image Centre
Peter Thomas, Coral Harbour, Southampton Island, Northern Canada, ca. 1965, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

“What are the things you could think about, like topics or keywords or events or personalities that maybe we don’t hear so much about, but that would be interesting … And so I started with a list of events, a list of personalities, to try to find. We have some big names in the collection, but I wanted to know ‘what do we have?’ When we say we have, for example, Germaine Krull, who was a German photographer from the 1920’s and 30’s, what does it mean when we say we have some of her photographs? And then we discovered that we have a story that nobody knew about, and that nobody knew even existed because it was never published. And we have 10 photographs and several pages written by her about the project.”

“And she’s just photographing people trying just to get by because of the occupation by the Germans.”

Paula Le Cler

That story is shown in the exhibition as Labour Camp, Cayenne, French Guiana, 1941 – 1942. In 1941, Krull fled the Nazi occupation of France, and disembarked from a steamship in French Guiana, on the coast of South America. The photographs that Krull made there are a rare, independent record of the notorious French penal colony known as “Devil’s Island.” Appended with Krull’s typed captions, and roughly printed from ger scratched and poorly-processed negatives, the picture story is among the great discoveries in the Black Star archive.

But it was not the only story from World War II.Paula Le Cler also documented the city of Marseille, France during the occupation.”She was photographing daily life, people suffering from the restrictions, having no food, no clothing, really struggling on the street. And she’s just photographing people trying just to get by because of the occupation by the Germans. So it’s a different perspective, but it’s just as meaningful. It shows a city that maybe we don’t hear that much about, which is an important city in France and had an important role during the war. And you see not the soldiers and the heroes and the usual representations of the war, but you see the civilians. You see how it affects real people in real life. It’s just a different perspective by a photographer that not a lot of people know about.”

The Vietnam War is also an area where the collection has a strong set of photographs, and it was something that Gaëlle Morel, the curator, wanted to include, but in a way that is not what most people have seen from the war.

Carole Sill, Smoke from a Burning Lightning-Struck Oil Tank near Augusta, Kansas, ca. 1959, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

“I knew I wanted to talk about the Vietnam War because I know the collection is really strong around the Vietnam War,” she says. “But I didn’t want to show the usual photographs that everybody knows about that were published in Life and were produced in books. So I tried to find something new. I found a story about this black sergeant in the American Army. And there’s a whole story about him and the fate of black soldiers during the Vietnam War. And it’s a very different representation of black soldiers. It had been published, and we found the magazine. So we can show the whole series.”

But the exhibition is not just about wars. The stories also include pieces on Daily Life in Maine between 1951 and 1957; The Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, California in 1965; a story on Family Planning in Chile in the early 1970’s; Queer Intimacy in the United States in the 1970’s and 1980’s; the Hunger Strike by prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1981; and a story on the children of the Ku Klux Clan in the United States from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. There are also stories on various celebrities through the decades, from Coco Channel to Sammy Davis, Jr. to Patty Hearst. And various important news stories, like the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Hurricane Carla in Texas in 1961.

Exploring the Diversity of the Collection, and working to expand the Narrative of Black Star

Through the stories that are on exhibit, Morel also works to show the diversity of gender, ethnicity, and geography in the Black Star archive. The exhibition is about trying to expand on the 20th century, because that is what the Black Star archive represents.

“We wanted to make sure we had a diverse group of photographers, gender wise, racially wise, geographically wise,” she tells. “We also wanted to represent stories or events or personalities from all over the world as much as possible. The collection is very American centric and European centric. So it’s hard. They have a very specific perspective on the world, which is an American one. So sometimes there are big events that were ignored because the American audience was not that into it.”

One of the stories that works to break the American centric bias, and that was covered by the Canadian Press, is the story on what is known as the Oka Crisis in Quebec in 1990. It was a tense, 78-day standoff between Mohawk protestors and the Sûreté du Québec, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Rachel Verbin, Marianne Le Galliard, 2019 Nadir Mohamed Fellow, in the Peter Higdon Research Centre, The Image Centre, Toronto © Rachel Verbin, The Image Centre
Kate Tarini, The Black Star Collection Housed in Boxes in The Image Centre’s Vault, 2012 © Kate Tarini

It began when the small Quebec village of Oka sanctioned new condominium construction and a golf course on sacred land. Demonstrators placed barricades to block the development, and the Mohwak’s small group of defenders grew to several hundred in number following a violent attempt by authorities to disperse the protestors, which resulted in the death of a Sûreté du Québec police officer by an unidentified shooter. Eventually, the federal government purchased the land from the developers, putting a stop to the project and ending the confrontation. The land, however, was not transferred to the people of Kanehsatàke. Three decades later, the claim has yet to be settled. Photographed in both black-and-white and color The Canadian Press’s coverage captured the scene from start to finish on both sides of the barricades. 

While this exhibition is made up of 35 stories, with the immense size of the Black Star archive, there are many more stories to be uncovered that could be told. And with a set of goals in mind, more exhibitions could follow that could further examine the archive and work to expand the narrative about the people, places, and events that the Black Star archive holds.

“When you have the goals, you know what you want,” says Gaëlle Morel. “You want to be fair. You want to change the narrative. You want to have important subjects, important figures, important topics, important conversations, important moments. It gets easier as you go. And again, we could always do another show.”

Stories from the Picture Press: Black Star Publishing Co. & The Canadian Press will be on view at the Image Center at Toronto Metropolitan University from September 13th through April 6 of 2024, though will be closed for the holidays from December 10th through January 16th. Facing Black Star is published by The MIT Press and can be purchased through the website here.

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