In the late 60s, young Boston artists began polishing their craft in MIT's Roxbury Photographers Training Program, the subject of a new exhibition at the MIT Museum.
Eric Bender | MIT Museum
Fifty years ago, Roxbury was the poorest neighborhood in Boston, just as it is now. Back then, its predominantly Black residents lived with intense and open racism. Hundreds of Roxbury buildings had been knocked down for a highway that was never built, leaving vacant lots. Nationally, the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement were at their peaks. In this turbulent time, “a lot of people were trying to make decisions about what they were going to do with their lives, and I was one of them,” recalls Hakim Raquib.
One day, as he came downstairs from the Bay State Banner community newspaper in the heart of Roxbury, a chance encounter changed Raquib’s life. He ran into a friend, Wesley Williams, who showed him the busy studio on the ground floor that was home to the Roxbury Photographers Training Program (RPTP).
Launched by MIT’s Creative Photography Laboratory, the RPTP aimed to teach young Roxbury residents how to become professional photographers. Raquib signed on and started on that track, launching a distinguished career in commercial and artistic photography and education that continues today.
“Once I walked through the door of the RPTP, I never turned back,” he says. “I owe the program a great deal. And I say that because without it, I don’t believe I would have experienced what I have thus far in my life. The camera was truly a vehicle for me to see the world in many different ways.”
MIT instructors and, even more so, other students in the program “taught me basically how to see,” says John Posey, another RPTP alum. “It really marked me for my life.”
Today, early works by Posey and Raquib are among those from RPTP on display as part of “To Look and Learn: The Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT,” an exhibition on view at the MIT Museum.
Going pro in the community
Founded in 1965 by the prominent photographer and educator Minor White, the Creative Photography Laboratory (CPL) itself pursued a very different mission than its RPTP offshoot, says Gary Van Zante, curator of the photography collections at the MIT Museum. CPL was an academic entity at MIT, but “it was not intended to teach students how to become professional photographers,” he says. “It was intended to teach them to learn to look and understand the world through photography.”
CPL faculty George Thomas and Gus Kayafas started RPTP in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the riots across the United States that followed. It was one of many community initiatives that MIT began during that era, says Van Zante.
The university has few records about how RPTP was founded, but the goal was to offer a professional opportunity track for young people of color in an era when it was often difficult for them to find a profession, he says. The studio in the heart of Roxbury included a darkroom and a gallery. Students were well supplied with film and photographic equipment, with support from Polaroid Corporation.
Planning the MIT Museum’s CPL exhibition during the Covid-19 pandemic, Van Zante uncovered more of the program’s history by contacting and interviewing surviving MIT instructors and former RPTP students. Many of these alumni went on to successful careers in photography, and often education as well. As Van Zante and his museum colleagues learned more about RPTP, they decided it should be represented in the CPL exhibition.
Showing the surviving images
But presenting RPTP in an exhibition on photography raised one big problem: The Roxbury students retained little or nothing of their works created all those decades ago. “We were putting the exhibition together from fragments,” Van Zante remarks.
Fortunately, Posey held onto negatives from his Around the Block collection, which could be printed in very high quality for the exhibition. These are images he shot on the Roxbury street. The most famous, with an early title of “Survival,” was of a man sleeping on a stoop. He was experiencing homelessness, part of the street scene, and Posey photographed him that way.
Raquib still owned “Bolero,” a closeup of the face of a young girl in a drum-and-bugle corps that was playing Ravel’s orchestral work. “I wanted to make a powerful statement,” he says. “This young child’s eyes in the beauty of their dark skin, coming out of blackness. It gave me great delight in making that print.” This image was the first to prove to Raquib that he could say what he wanted to say in a photo.
His “Bilquis,” named for the Biblical Queen of Sheba, is an expression of African culture, with a woman wearing jewelry brought back from Kenya that sparkles in natural light from a window. “I wanted to keep that darkness, that mystery in the skin,” he comments. “The eyes are a little bit different in that one; they are more mysterious; they don’t pop out at you.”
Omobowale Ayorinde’s photos on display at the museum include a number of sensitive portraits of Nigerian workers from a trip there in 1969, such as “The Weaver’s Son.” His Africa trip, inspired by an exploration of his own African roots, was also an opportunity to field-test the photographic skills he had learned at RPTP, as a trial run for professional practice, Van Zante says. In fact, Ayorinde developed a particular skill with portraiture at that early stage that remained important to his career work.
Polished for publication
With initial technical guidance from the MIT experts, and intense collaboration and constructive criticism with their peers, RPTP students rapidly gathered the expertise to capture striking images.
The instructors taught the use of light meters and the zone system (a technique to achieve the best possible exposures for each image) as well as how to develop film and print photos correctly. “We stayed in the darkroom all night long,” Posey remembers. “We were there seven days a week.”
“Of course, we were trying to break the rules, to make our own statements, but the instructors enhanced the quality of the work,” says Raquib. “The most important thing for us was that we were always making prints. That was my biggest fun, printing.”
While many students came and went, a core group was very serious and stayed with the program throughout. “Everybody was happy,” he says. “It was restful, peaceful, but it was always busy. The camaraderie was unshakable. We grew together. ”
Being downstairs from the Bay State Banner office proved to be a major benefit, because the students could work as press photographers, alongside journalists who would bring them on assignments.
Ayorinde, Posey, and Raquib also began taking fashion shots and selling them to magazines. Additionally, the book publishers who were then numerous in Boston began buying their shots of their community. “Nobody was getting the essence of, the sense of the community that we were providing,” Raquib says. “I think we were responsible for changing the narrative in some way.”
Public shows in RPTP’s own gallery and elsewhere in Boston further broadened the impact of this generation of photographers.
At the time, the Roxbury community was neglected, discriminated against and given a great deal of bad ink in the media. “You don’t particularly respect what people are saying about it or you,” Raquib says. “You know there are good people in this community, beautiful people. And that was the option, to use the camera to show that. We were special, because we had cameras. and we knew that we could walk into most situations.”
During that era, MIT often spun off its community initiatives with the expectation that they eventually would evolve into self-managed and self-funded efforts. That was the case with RPTP, and the university eventually withdrew from the program. The program’s backers struggled to find new means of support, and the effort eventually closed. “I think MIT could have done more in sustaining the program a little bit longer,” Raquib says.
But the RPTP program, he says, changed his life and many others for the better. And the Roxbury contingent achieved what CPL tried to teach in its academic courses back at MIT: to look and see and understand the world through photography.
“MIT gave us everything we needed to make it work, as far as equipment, as far as film, as far as the knowledge,” Posey says. “Everything I do in life comes back to the program, as far as teaching me how to see the world around me and the world that’s beyond.”
Interviews for this story were conducted by Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture, design and photography, and others at the MIT Museum.