Photographer chronicled history of Harlem
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
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
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.
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
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
"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)
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.
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
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