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Photographer chronicled history of Harlem

Hansen

February 11, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m EST

From Correspondent Brian Jenkins

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For six decades, Austin Hansen documented the great figures and grand structures of his chosen community, Harlem -- the leading seat of African-American culture.

He captured local titans -- such as Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. -- and recorded the parade of dignitaries who visited Harlem: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Queen Mother of England, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, a young Martin Luther King, Jr., organizing a march on Washington.

For Hansen, a lifetime's work began with a cardboard camera he got as a child in the Virgin Islands.

"To see something develop, it was like magic, when I made these little things myself, you know, these little pictures," he once said.

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Hansen immigrated to New York in 1928 at the age of 18. During World War II, he served as a Navy photographer's mate -- a job usually off-limits to a black sailor at that time.

Back in Harlem, he played drums in a band -- and always kept his camera in a bag.

He caught the great Count Basie tickling the ivories for the dancing Nicholas brothers ... singer Eartha Kitt ... jazzman Dizzy Gillespie.

He captured the star quality of a very young Leslie Uggams, and recorded future movie idol Billy Dee Williams cutting birthday cake with his twin sister at their sweet sixteen party.

"He didn't photograph just the celebrities," said former New York Mayor David Dinkins, "he photographed life in what we like to call the village of Harlem." (85K AIFF sound or 85K WAV sound)

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Hansen photographed perhaps the most important event in the Dinkins' life -- his wedding to wife Joyce in 1953. No matter how high his office, Dinkins said, when it came to posing for Hansen, he stood where he was told.

"And he could take as long as he wanted because everybody liked him," Dinkins said.

Hansen's eldest son, Austin Jr., didn't understand his father's long hours in the studio, though -- until going to work for him.

"This was a compulsion," the younger Hansen said. "It was his art form, and he pursued it for all it was worth." (111K AIFF sound or 111K WAV sound)

Hansen served as historian for a number of Harlem churches: St. Martin's Episcopal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

And while he kept a full schedule of commissioned jobs, he also snapped news photos: a crowd reading about the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a woman and her baby just evicted from their home, baseball greats Roy Campenella and Jackie Robinson at a Boys' Club.

Dinkins car

Each time that a person of African descent broke another racial barrier," said Howard Dodson of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, "(Hansen) would capture that person's image."

Austin Hansen was last caught on film at the opening two weeks ago of an exhibition of works by noted Harlem photographers. He suffered a stroke that night, and died three days later.

He once wrote to David Dinkins that "time passes, but love endures." The same could be said of the more than half a million photographs he left behind.

An album of Hansen's photographs



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