Earlie Hudnall’s Photographs


It’s a clear day and the sun beats down on Houston’s Fourth Ward. Photographer Earlie Hudnall kneels on the hot, cracked pavement and squints into his viewfinder. He snaps a shot of a few pairs of old tennis shoes that hang from a powerline as a drop of sweat runs down the side of his face.

 

I ask Hudnall about the disappearing communities of the Wards and their impact on his work. My question goes unanswered as he bends down again, refocuses, and takes another shot from a different angle. I remain silent and allow him to work. The hours I’ve spent with him have taught me that all that matters is that fraction of a second before the camera clicks.

 

After a few more shots, Hudnall stands up and begins walking down the street. I catch up and ask where we’re heading next. “We’re just moving on,” he replies. “When you’re taking pictures, you have to get out and move because life will never be presented to you again in the same way. Life is a continuum and you have to work constantly in order to chronicle it properly.”

 

A smile crosses his face for a brief moment and he’s on the move again, shooting, focusing, chronicling life in Houston’s Fourth Ward.

 

Born in 1946 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Hudnall has witnessed the transition of many African American neighborhoods. As a child, he would sit on the porch and listen to his grandmother tell stories about the family and the surrounding area. Those early experiences forged in him a love for the community and gave birth to his interest in the dynamics of small clusters of people.

 

In 1968, Hudnall moved to Houston to study art at Texas Southern University. With a camera in hand, Hudnall quickly learned that Houston’s Wards were only a bigger version of that friendly community he had known in Hattiesburg. From then on, his career has focused on those residents and the way gentrification is forcing their lifestyle to disappear.

 

“The Wards are small communities within a large city and that makes them very special. Once I began to go out there and take pictures, I found what I love: people. Then I went to the rest of the Wards and found that it was the same. The communities are now disappearing because of the way we live. The small communities that you used to find off the beaten path are becoming extinct due to the modernization process and gentrification. You find tall buildings built like fortresses where nobody knows their neighbor, but you can’t find neighborhoods. It’s getting hard to find that commonality that small neighborhoods share. I think condos isolate and it’s good for people to share, to sit out on the porch and be a community. ”

 

The Wards have shaped Hudnall’s work in many ways. His prints tell meaningful stories of faith, struggle, beauty, resentment, brotherhood, degradation, joy, and survival simply because that’s life in the Wards. Those eloquent prints hang in the walls of the Wittliff Gallery at Texas State University, the National Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian Institute.

 

As we walk down a street, Hudnall climbs onto porches to talk to people and take their picture. His perennial smile and respectful demeanor get him a positive response each time. As he photographs a man with a Black Jesus tattooed on his right bicep, Hudnall breaks the silence and explains the attributes of a good image.

 

“I think an image, in order to be important, has to have a profound effect on the viewer. A picture needs to remind people of something, like the fact that we are different but we are all the same. People laugh, people cry, people get together on the porch. That’s what we find in traditional communities like the Wards, a soothing atmosphere that allows you to enjoy it. Maybe I’m not a participant, but I can document it and that way others can participate. In that way, pictures are visual storytelling.”

 

And Hudnall is a master storyteller. As he describes what drives him, it becomes clear that his goal as an artist is not to create artistic representations of beauty or decay; his aim is to tell the story of African Americans as it unfolds.

 

“I owe it to myself, to my personal philosophy, to document how our communities live, how they change and how they face the future. If I can find art in what I do, so be it, but I don’t go out looking for that. The pictures that I take are truthful. They are a document. Each of these pictures has a story. Whether you are on the Third, Fourth, Fifth or First Ward, it’s all the same: the story of people that can’t afford to move, people that are landlocked and feel trapped.”

 

Hudnall’s deeply-rooted affection for the Wards is evident. The impending destruction of the communities he has worked with for so long is a constant concern for him. Speaking of it is the only thing that makes his smile waiver.

 

During our walk around the Wards, he pointed to boarded-up windows, flapping tarpaulin roofs, condemned houses, piles of trash, and buildings devastated by fire. He said gentrification is killing the Wards like a slow cancer. All around us, torn roofs resembling gaping, hungry mouths seemed to agree with him.

 

After our trip, we went to Hudnall’s home studio. With a muffled gospel tune playing in the background and a stainless steel autopsy table serving as both table and sink, I was treated to a class in fine printmaking. Afterwards, Hudnall caught me staring at the array of dried leaves that decorate the inside of his studio. He picked one up and held it in front of him for a second before speaking.

 

“I keep some of these around to remind me that the natural beauty and the texture of it is something we could never duplicate in the darkroom or anywhere else.”  

 

That might be true, but he has managed to recreate life in that darkroom. From the economic limitations and racism that affect African Americans all over the South to the wave of gentrification that now threatens to overtake the Wards, Hudnall has documented everything, giving equal space and importance to the sufferers and the churchgoers, the creased faces of the old and the glowing, innocent smiles of the young. Still, after so many decades, he keeps going back to find what he calls the “universality of life” in those neighborhoods and to ensure that it’s documented before time runs out.

 

“People should get to know the Wards. If you don’t know your own backyard, you’re lost. If people don’t keep the communities up, we’ll loose who we are, how we live and what we do in our day to day. We have to make sure we pass down our history. I feel I’ve done my job if my images can make somebody say ‘I remember this’.”

 

Earlie Hudnall’s art is an eloquent and technically impeccable record of real life. The quality of the work makes him an astounding artist, but his dedication to the craft, respect and love for the people and places he shoots, and the depth of his personal philosophy are what makes him a righteous man full of praiseworthy qualities.

 

Z


Gabino Iglesias is a PhD student, writer, book reviewer, and journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work deals with culture, minorities, and social justice issues.