January 25, 2017

An Eye for Life

For more than 60 years, C. Smith assembled the photo album of the city’s African-American experience. He created a visual history of everything from civil rights protests to family celebrations and everyone from Miss Black Cincinnati to Barack Obama.

Now those moments come together in Better Than Good: The Photography of C. Smith at the Main Branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The exhibit title, borrowed from motivational speaker Les Brown, refers to how Smith feels, and how he has made African-Americans feel, by documenting what matters to them. 

The 81-year-old Bond Hill resident is uneasy with attention, but as a child of the Jim Crow era, Smith saw the respect a photographer could command and knew he wanted to be one.  

It was 1949, and Smith was watching Cincinnati’s homecoming parade for boxer Ezzard Charles, who’d won the heavyweight championship. A police officer was holding back people who wanted to shake the hand of their black hero. 

“Then Amos Hardy, a black photographer, stepped forward, and the officer cleared the crowd to let him through,” Smith says. “But only because he was a photographer — not because he was black.”

Curated by librarian Brian Powers, Better Than Good is the largest survey of work by Smith, whose pictures have appeared in Jet, Ebony and Essence magazines and the James Brown biopic Get On Up

Several hundred images are displayed on three floors. Smith’s subjects are a who’s who of civil rights figures (Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Stokely Carmichael), performers and writers (Richard Pryor, Nat King Cole, Nikki Giovanni), athletes (Oscar Robertson, Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods) and religious leaders (Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Louis Farrakhan). The local NAACP sent him to cover the 1963 March on Washington and the 1967 riot in Avondale. 

His portraits of 100 prominent local African-Americans were displayed around town as part of Cincinnati’s bicentennial in 1988. In 2008, the Westin hotel exhibited his photography in its lobby. Smith’s long career wasn’t about getting exposure for himself, though, but serving other African-Americans as he took pictures in the community and at the Avondale studio he operated from 1983 until his retirement in 2015. 

“His only job was to do a good job and get people to come back,” says his wife, Jenny Laster. “He knew how to work the camera and the people. ‘You’re looking good,’ he’d say. He knew how to make them feel most important.”

Jymi Bolden, director of Over-the-Rhine’s Art Beyond Boundaries gallery, calls Smith an unsung treasure and “Cincinnati’s James Van Der Zee,” referring to a salon photographer of the Harlem Renaissance who practiced the same neighborhood brand of commercial photography. Van Der Zee, who died in 1983 after a 70-year career, was the subject of a 1995 show at the Cincinnati Art Museum, but he wasn’t discovered by the art world until 1969. 

“The best way to approach the magnitude of C. Smith’s work is the volume. Here’s a guy who’s been a working photographer for 60 years,” Bolden says. “Anyone with that kind of a portfolio is deserving of an archival acknowledgement.” 

When he was 14, Smith’s mother bought him a Ricohflex camera at a pawnshop. He already was working in a darkroom outside the Cotton Club in the West End, where he grew up.  

Smith had mentors in Ruth Coleman and her husband, Ed, a black entrepreneur whose businesses included the Super Speedy Photo Studio inside the Sterling Hotel, which housed the Cotton Club. As musicians and patrons arrived at Cincinnati’s only integrated nightclub, “camera girls” took their pictures and brought the slides to Smith for developing. “I’d be fascinated by the images as they came up,” he says. 

Smith became a young entrepreneur, taking photos of children around Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court in their Easter clothes. He rushed to the darkroom so he could deliver the pictures that night for $2 each.

After graduating from a graphic arts program in 1953, Smith took a job at a printing company where he’d apprenticed. But because he was black, a degree made no difference in his pay. 

“They hired a delivery boy at $1.25 an hour who was out of jail and white, and I’m making 75 cents,” Smith says. “So I quit, in the middle of a catalog run.”

Smith, who later worked at General Electric, committed himself to being an entrepreneur like photographer and publisher Fred Suggs, another black mentor. “I walked into his shop with my bag, camera and lights,” Smith says. “I was impressed because he was working for himself. He allowed me to work in his studio for no charge.”

Though shy, Smith had spunk — and he used it in the late 1960s to develop Ghetto magazine. 

At the library, Smith shuffles through copies of Ghetto with Everett Cork, the former radio host for WCIN, one of the nation’s first black-oriented stations. The digest-size publication featured a foxy woman on the cover and musician profiles inside, along with ads for black-owned businesses. 

Smith says he was broke when he began Ghetto. Another photographer had published a magazine like it before leaving Cincinnati. Smith saw an opportunity to fill a void.

“I went around to businesses and gave them a free advertisement,” Smith says. “My girl was on the cover, and (once they saw her) they wanted to be a part of it. The first issue was free and 32 pages. The second issue was 64 pages.”

“Did you charge for that?” Cork interjects.

“Absolutely!” Smith says. 

Issues of the 25-cent periodical grew to 100 pages. He published monthly for three or four years. 

When James Brown sang at Cincinnati Gardens, Smith leveraged Ghetto’s popularity to gain backstage access.  

“There were all these white photographers around, and they (Brown’s handlers) let them in,” Smith says. “I had a press pass, but they wouldn’t let me in. So I showed them the book and said, ‘I’m going to put him in this.’ They showed it to James, and he asked what the circulation was. I said, ‘5,000.’ I had no more problems with him.”

Smith was the photographer for WCIN. His studio was on Reading Road. “When artists came through Cincinnati, C. Smith was their first stop,” Cork says. 

When the stars didn’t find Smith, he found them — and good stories, too. Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard beams in a 1980 street portrait taken downtown.   

Leonard stopped in town on the way to his fight in Montreal against Roberto Durán because his trainer, Janks Morton, was from here. Leonard wanted to stay sharp, and Morton knew Cincinnati native Aaron Pryor rented a gym at Ninth and Plum streets. 

“Janks asked Aaron’s manager if Sugar Ray could work out,” Smith says. “Aaron was still pissed off that Sugar Ray wouldn’t fight him, so he said, ‘He can work out, if he goes three rounds with me first.’ ”

Leonard and Pryor never met in a professional match, but Smith witnessed the unofficial bout.  

“Sugar was so smooth,” leading Pryor on, Smith says. “Then Janks motioned and Sugar went on offense, and Sugar got the best of him. Aaron was so upset; he wanted to go again. Janks said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

Smith says he himself nearly went a few rounds when white people threatened him as he photographed a protest against a doctor’s segregated waiting rooms. He’s not a violent person, but he’d faced racism since childhood. Smith’s family fled Tennessee as the Klan came after his father. 

After years of injustice, Smith liked photographing progress. He pauses before a picture of the swearing-in of Judge Leslie Isaiah Gaines to the Hamilton County Municipal Court bench in 1993. The late icon’s then-wife, Judge Deborah Gaines, did the honors. 

Smith points to the spectators in his photo — especially other photographers who are aiming their cameras at the couple. 

 “I didn’t want that shot” of just the Gaineses, he says. He hopped on a desk behind them. “I got the impact — the audience and how big it was.” 

Wife Jenny says Smith has used a camera just once or twice since retiring, but he’s always watching others. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re not doing it right.’ His bar of excellence is so high,” she says. “I’ll remind him, ‘Not everyone is the same sort of photographer as you were.’ He’ll say, ‘Yeah, but they ought to be.’ ” 

In 2003, Smith started a local association of black photographers to unite and support one another the way his mentors helped him. When Smith retired in 2015, more than 360 people attended the party. Friends came from as far away as Florida for the Better Than Good opening reception on Jan. 14. 

Though he prefers to deflect attention, Smith wears his status as black Cincinnati’s longtime personal photographer with obvious pride. In a vintage portrait with his camera, he sports a fedora, some glittery jewelry and a big smile.

He is feeling better than good. 


BETTER THAN GOOD: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF C. SMITH is on display through March 12 at the Main Library, 800 Vine St., Downtown. Free. Discussion with Smith 1 p.m. Feb. 4. Find more Black History Month events at cincinnatilibrary.org.


Black History Month Events at the Main Library

Every Saturday in February, the Main Library will hold events to explore photo-graphy, music and theater in Cincinnati’s black community. All events are free and take place at the Reading Garden Lounge, unless otherwise noted. 

Feb. 4: C. Smith discusses his six-decade career taking pictures at 1 p.m.

Feb. 11: Genealogist Thomas Jordan shares how to find clues to family history in photo albums at 11 a.m. At 1 p.m., visit the MakerSpace to learn how to preserve photos using the library’s free scanning and storage technology.

Feb. 18: Musicians and fans talk about Cincinnati’s Jazz heritage at 1 p.m. Panelists include pianist/composer Pat Kelly, singer Kathy Wade, photographer Melvin Grier, promoter Arzell Nelson and Laura Gentry, president of the nonprofit Jazz Alive. The panel discussion is in the Huenefeld Tower Room. A concert by the Hank Mautner Quintet follows at 3 p.m. in the Reading Garden Lounge.

Feb. 25: Tony Darnell Davis, a professor emeritus of theater at the University of Cincinnati, looks at efforts to establish dramatic arts programming, including the founding of Cincinnati Black Theater in 2001, at 1 p.m.

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An Eye for Life
An Eye for Life
In the late 1960s, C. Smith created his own magazine on black life in Cincinnati called Ghetto, which was published monthly through the early 1970s.
In the late 1960s, C. Smith created his own magazine on black life in Cincinnati called Ghetto, which was published monthly through the early 1970s.
Ralph Byrd, guitarist for The Students
Ralph Byrd, guitarist for The Students
Photographer C. Smith
Photographer C. Smith
H-Bomb Ferguson, Cin­cinnati Jump Blues singer and pianist, was known for his colorful wigs and playing in a flamboyant performance style.
H-Bomb Ferguson, Cin­cinnati Jump Blues singer and pianist, was known for his colorful wigs and playing in a flamboyant performance style.
James Brown backstage at Cincinnati Gardens in the mid-1960s
James Brown backstage at Cincinnati Gardens in the mid-1960s
On October 20, 2010, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center presented His Holiness the Dalai Lama with its International Freedom Conductor Award for his leadership of the non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet.
On October 20, 2010, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center presented His Holiness the Dalai Lama with its International Freedom Conductor Award for his leadership of the non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet.
Rev. Lewis Griffin (center), pastor of Revelation Baptist Church, leads the congregation’s men in a 1968 march for justice.
Rev. Lewis Griffin (center), pastor of Revelation Baptist Church, leads the congregation’s men in a 1968 march for justice.
Candy Jamison, Cincinnati boxer, training at the West End Boy’s Club in the 1950s
Candy Jamison, Cincinnati boxer, training at the West End Boy’s Club in the 1950s