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Charlotte Brooks (born Sept. 16, 1918)

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Biographical Essay


Charlotte Brooks1 is a photojournalist who worked for Look magazine from 1951 until 1971. As a sociologist with a camera, she liked to document changes in American life, including politics, health and science, education, families, urban and suburban issues, entertainment, racial conflicts, and women's roles. Her biography is a story of defying the odds, because she achieved her objectives at a time when her gender, religious background, and sexual preference presented her with extra challenges.

The only long-term woman staff photographer in the magazine's nearly thirty-five year run, Brooks came to feel accepted as "one of the guys." She covered the same kinds of issues as the men photographers, while most of her contemporary female colleagues were confined to soft news and the women's pages. Taken together, her 450 photographic assignments for Look form a two-decade long sociological survey of the United States.

The Library of Congress has the largest body of Brooks' work available for research--more than one hundred thousand photographs in the Look Magazine Photograph Collection. This five million-item collection of negatives, transparencies, and contact sheets spans 1937 to 1971, the entire run of the magazine. The jobs from 1955 to 1971 are cataloged by story title and subject in the Prints and Photographs Division online catalog. [See Resources for more information.] Brooks has an additional part of her archive, which is a promised gift to the Library.

Charlotte Brooks agreed to be interviewed for this essay at her home in Holmes, N.Y., by photo curator Beverly W. Brannan on December 1, 1998. Brooks was objective when speaking about herself. Her companion, Julie Arden, a former settlement house worker, playwright, dramatist, and actress, joined the interview several times. Arden's pride in Brooks' accomplishments lent another voice and perspective to Brooks' work and their lives together.

Early Life

Brooks was born Charlotte Finkelstein in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. While still a child, she made photographs and, by age twelve, had built herself a darkroom. She enjoyed expressive activities, not scripted ones. In high school, she abandoned "structured" ballet for modern dance, which allowed for more spontaneity and freedom of movement.2

When Brooks graduated from the prestigious Erasmus Hall public high school in 1936, she wanted to attend a school far from home but settled for Brooklyn College due to limited family finances and her parents' desire to keep her nearby. Trying to avoid anti-Semitism, she changed her surname to "Brooks," which was derived from her grandmother's maiden name Eisenbruch. Brooks benefited particularly from the sage advice and guidance provided by labor leader and economics professor Theresa Wolfson (1897-1970) and her husband, Austin Wood, who taught psychology at Brooklyn College. Brooks also continued modern dance at the college level. In 1940, she earned a B.A. degree and went on to graduate school in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota with financial support from some of her college professors.

The outgoing Brooks soon realized that the emphasis on psychometrics at the University of Minnesota--with standardized testing and statistical analyses--provided little face-to-face interaction with people and denied her the satisfaction of helping people directly. She felt discouraged by what she perceived as anti-Semitism among her professors, one of whom singled her out to tabulate test scores saying, "you people [Jews] are supposed to be intelligent." When she tried to transfer into the school of social work, Brooks remembered being warned, "We have a quota for people of your kind."3 Disillusioned, she abandoned the program and returned to New York to work in a Lower East Side settlement house.

In the summer of 1941, Brooks taught athletics at Bay House, a summer camp operated by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society in Bellport, Long Island. There she met Julie Arden, who ran the drama program. In winters, Arden was head of drama at New York City's Greenwich House, which was renowned for arts and theater activities. An innovative social worker, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, administered Greenwich House, and Brooks learned from Mary about being an independent woman. That fall, Brooks began to share an apartment with Julie Arden in New York City.

Frustrated at failing to become a certified social worker, Brooks turned to two activities that she enjoyed--photography and dance. In exchange for free admission to Berenice Abbott's photography class at the New School for Social Research, she reluctantly agreed to pose in the nude for art classes. Modesty forced her to accept, instead, a scholarship to study with Barbara Mettler, who was forming a modern dance group at the New School.

Between the passage of women's suffrage in 1920 and the Great Depression of the 1930s, Jewish women "battled anti-Semitism and politicized dance at a time when Americans were particularly concerned with expressing ideals of social justice and national renewal in their art." In dance and other activities, they explored and affirmed both their Jewish identity and American citizenry.4 Charlotte's dedication to modern dance can be seen as not only healthy exercise, but a search for self and a statement of her identity as she worked to become a first generation American.

After a second summer at Bay House camp, Brooks combined her two passions in the fall of 1942 when she assisted Barbara Morgan, the internationally renowned photographer of the illustrious dance innovator Martha Graham. Two days a week, Brooks worked at Barbara's home studio in Scarsdale, New York. When she picked up a camera there to make some outdoor shots on her own, Brooks experienced what she referred to as "buck fever," comparing herself to a jittery, inexperienced hunter anticipating her first kill. Photography, she realized, was her calling. From that point on she devoted her life to it.

Training to Become a Photojournalist

Brooks is largely self-taught as a photographer. Beyond Abbott and Morgan, she chose contemporary women as role models: her housewife mother, Jennie Berger; her college professor, Theresa Wolfson; and her companion, dramatist Julie Arden. She was aware of Margaret Bourke-White, the first female photographer at Life magazine who was celebrated for her iconic images. But Brooks recognized her own style as more suited to sets of images that together form picture stories. She knew of the accomplishments of the FSA through U.S. Camera Annual.5 She gravitated to the "sweetness" in the images of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange and felt drawn to the social reform photographs of the FSA. While inspired by the FSA work, Brooks produced photographs that are informative documentation rather than a call to action.

Brooks also studied other photographers' work to broaden her own approach. While aware of work by women photographers, she was not drawn to the edgy quality in images by Austrian-born émigré Lisette Model or the abstract art compositions of Ruth Bernhardt. Instead, Brooks valued most the images by French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004), master of the decisive moment when the photographer knows intuitively to snap the picture or lose it forever.

Brooks also sought out new technical skills. In the spring of 1943, when photographer Gjon Mili's male assistant was drafted into the army, Brooks took his place. Mili (1904-1984) was an Albanian émigré trained in the Modernist style doing commercial and advertising photography for Life and Vogue magazines. Mili adapted to photojournalism the stroboscopic techniques he had learned while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with scientific innovator, professor Harold Edgerton.

In the spring of 1944, for more money and greater independence, Brooks photographed for a string of suburban New Jersey weekly newspapers. Julie Arden wrote a story about her, "Girl on Assignment," for Popular Photography, February 1945. Photographer Edwin Rosskam brought the images to the attention of Roy Stryker at Standard Oil of New Jersey (SONJ). Soon after, Brooks joined Stryker's project to help tell the story of oil in photos--its use in daily home life and in fighting World War II. The photographers worked on a freelance basis. With wholehearted commitment, Brooks produced more than 1,000 negatives for SONJ throughout New York and New England.6

Brooks' work for Stryker ended in 1946, when his former FSA photographers returned from World War II. Like other women who had replaced men who went off to fight, Brooks encountered great difficulty finding jobs as veterans returned to the work force. For the next three years, she secured only the occasional freelance job. "I didn't dare take a vacation," she said, "lest I would lose a job."7 Unable to live on such intermittent income, Brooks joined her family's business, manufacturing ladies' sportswear but knew her services were unnecessary. She became depressed and agonized about how to go on with photography.

Career at Look

Brooks' network of friends paid off. In 1951, Arthur Rothstein arranged an interview for her at Look magazine, where he was working. She accepted a job in the promotions unit of the Advertising Department, making pictures that regular staff photographers balked at doing. Her tasks included the "sociable cheese" series--photographing supermarket displays when a cheese manufacturing company was a major Look advertiser. Another lowly assignment had her in smoke-filled rooms at professional meetings, photographing visitors' heads in cardboard cutouts of celebrities.

The 1930s saw the birth of several magazines that relied on photojournalism, including Life, launched in late 1936, and Look, started by Iowa newspaper publisher Gardner "Mike" Cowles in 1937. The earliest issues of Look featured stories about movies and their stars and tales of freakish events. Look had a decidedly liberal point of view. Its Democratic slant can be traced to the magazine's origins in the New Deal. Cowles consulted Roy Stryker about the picture magazine he dreamed of starting and initially Look regularly ran stories built around FSA photographs. Post-war hires of experienced journalists led Look to create its own photo stories. By 1951, Look was a good fit for Brooks.

Through the entire run of the magazine -- from 1937 to 1971 -- Look was dedicated to a populist, idealistic vision of the United States. Each issue carried at least one story about an ordinary person, their work, their family, and their city or town. It treated World War II chiefly from the enlisted man's perspective and endorsed Democratic candidates. Coming out every other week, Look emphasized in-depth feature stories and also presented such controversial topics as the labor movement, segregation, and mental health. Brooks recalled that people referred to Look as "the poor man's Life."8

Occasionally, Brooks escaped the Advertising Department to substitute for absent photographers. She made publishable underwater pictures (on her first attempt) while filling in for the unexpectedly hospitalized photographer who had spent months preparing for the assignment. Once photo editor Ben Wickersham recognized her ability, he assigned her stories that enabled her to work her way up the photographic ranks. She covered the same topics as the male photographers and gradually felt accepted as "one of the guys." As the newest photographer at a Democratic magazine, Brooks also covered the candidacy of Republican nominees Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. For months after the election, her images were Look's only photographs of the new president and vice president.

Look often reported on modern science at a time of great innovation, especially in medicine. Brooks frequently covered medical issues and physicians. She is most proud of her photograph showing a baby undergoing a spinal tap. It was one of the first times that anesthesia was used on an infant. Previously it had been thought that babies did not recall early pain.

Look's focus on middle class life suited Brooks well. She enjoyed showing how people lived because that was exactly the kind of topic that had motivated her earlier to pursue social work. Her work also enabled her, from a recent immigrant family, to observe the American way of life. An especially interesting assignment concerned the racial integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of the massive suburban developments built for veterans who had returned from the war eager to start families.

Look took a strong interest in education. Brooks photographed several stories about effective teaching, including the beginning of the Sesame Street program. In 1956, Arthur Rothstein's book, Photojournalism: Pictures for Magazines and Newspapers, reprinted Brooks' picture story, "What Is a Teacher?" The marked and annotated version of her story speaks directly to the way that pictures inform and educate.9

Brooks liked contributing to Look's celebrated series, "All America Cities," because she could travel, stay long enough to capture the character of each city, and learn more about the nation as a whole. She photographed Boston, Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Wichita, as well as Grafton, West Virginia, and Oil City, Pennsylvania. Julie Arden often joined her near the end of assignments to explore new locations and also visit old friends.

Look frequently published stories that examined divisive issues critically, and Brooks covered many stories about race. Her 1955 coverage of jazz musician Duke Ellington on the road included images of discriminatory signage and her field notes10 refer to difficulties he and his band faced in obtaining food and places to spend the night. In 1958, Brooks photographed Minnijean Brown, plaintiff in the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. The court ruling enabled Minnijean and eight other students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas. The Black students faced constant taunts from many White students. After Minnijean responded angrily to one of her tormentors, she was forced to leave. When Brooks photographed her, she was completing her secondary education at an integrated private high school in New York, while living with the family of sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Dr. Clark was a primary author of the social science brief on which the winning Supreme Court argument was based, and Mrs. Clark directed the Northside Harlem child development center where Dr. Clark initiated the tests on which he based his brief. Brooks also photographed efforts to racially integrate mainstream educational institutions.

The material wealth of the postwar era permitted adolescents a prolonged childhood that fostered a youth culture and a new popular entertainment--television. Brooks often covered the weekly Ed Sullivan variety show, which introduced many new performers to television audiences, including Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Look dealt with movies, television, and popular music in stories about rising as well as established stars. In 1970, Brooks photographed Afro-Cuban singer La Lupe who, like many of her countrymen, left Cuba soon after the Cuban Revolution and helped popularize salsa, the Latin music sensation.

Look began to represent on its pages the profound changes in lives of women when Gardner Cowles' wife Fleur joined Look's staff in the late 1940s. Brooks documented "career girl" stories throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when women in the workplace posed a challenge to social mores. Brooks herself helped change the workplace for women photographers when, soon after she joined Look, she became the third female member of the then seven-year-old American Society for Magazine Photographers (ASMP).11 She served as secretary in 1953 and vice-president in 1955. When the ASMP was working to establish standard definitions for work and the fees publishers would pay photographers for various types of pictures, Brooks successfully negotiated improved terms for her organization and managed to reduce, but not abolish, the gender differential in pay.

Simply being a female magazine staff photographer in that era set Brooks apart. Her contemporary, Lisette Model, noted that Brooks broke ground by becoming a staff photographer at a time when few women could claim that accomplishment.12 Most women photographers were hired only on a freelance basis. Brooks benefited from the companionship of the women she worked with, especially Suzanne Szasz, with whom she covered Hungarian refugees in New Jersey in 1956, and Look's managing editor Pat Carbine.

Brooks recognized that a new era in magazine photography had arrived when Mary Ellen Mark worked briefly for Look in 1969-70. As a pioneer female staff photographer, Brooks had adapted to her work environment, comporting herself with diffidence, reserve, and little assertiveness. She saw immediately that newcomer Mark already possessed the self-confidence and other qualities that have made Mark a leader in the contemporary realm of documentary photography.

Looking Back

The most active period of Brooks' photography career concluded with the 1971 demise of Look. Advertisers shifted their funding to television, and magazines could no longer maintain a stable of dedicated photographers. Brooks felt grateful that photojournalism permitted her to become a sociologist with a camera; to be economically independent; and to give back to her community through the Arts Center that she and Julie Arden helped found in White Pond, New York, in 1976. She later conducted photography workshops for the U.S. State Department in Romania and Soviet Georgia in the mid-1970s and mentored neighborhood teens with Arden. Brooks' life story is a saga of determination, and her photographs record the changing fabric of life in the 1950s and 1960s.

Notes

1 Essay written by Beverly Brannan, Photography Curator at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

2 Charlotte Brooks. Telephone conversation with author, 2 August 2005.

3 Charlotte Brooks. Email to Beverly W. Brannan. 11 August 2005

4 Julia L. Foulkes, "Angels 'Rewolt!': Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s," American Jewish History 88.2, 233-234.

5 T.J. Mahoney, ed. U.S. Camera, 1939. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1939).

6 Two photographers named Charlotte Brooks were born in 1918. The subject of this essay, born on September 16, 1918, worked for Stryker at SONJ. The other Charlotte Brooks made a few photographs for Stryker's earlier Farm Security Administration project. Reference sources often confuse who worked where or consider the women to be a single person.

7 Charlotte Brooks. Email to Beverly W. Brannan, 11 August 2005.

8 Her friend Arthur Rothstein carried the comparison further when he commented that Brooks, Look's only female staff photographer, was "the poor man's Margaret Bourke-White," pointing out that Brooks had dark hair, not blonde.

9 Charlotte Brooks' picture story appeared originally in the February 1956 issue of Look. Arthur Rothstein. Photojournalism: Pictures for Magazines and Newspapers. (New York: American Photographic Book Publishing Co., 1956).

10 The field notes are part of the intended gift to the Library.

11 Brooks remembered that one of the others was Ylla, the alias for European-born Camilla Koffler (1911-1955) who specialized in photographing animals.

12 Charlotte Brooks. Interview with the author, Brewster, N.Y. 18 October 1998.


Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2009. Last revised: September 2009.
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