Photographic Memory

An exhibition of archival imagery by Maurice Sorrell (1914-1998), the first Black member of the White House Photographers Association


Organizing Institutions

Penn Social Policy & Practice, Slought


Stephanie Renée


Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries; Reelblack; Soul Sanctuary; WRTI 90.1

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and Penn School of Social Policy & Practice are pleased to announce Photographic Memory, an exhibition of archival imagery by Maurice Sorrell (1914-1998), the first Black member of the White House Photographers Association, on display at Slought from June 21, 2018 to July 21, 2018. An opening reception will take place on Thursday, June 21, 2018 from 6-9pm, with a conversation featuring curator Stephanie Renée and Daryl DeBrest and Mike D of Reelblack at 7pm.

"I rarely remember seeing my Uncle Maurice without his camera in tow," Renée recalls, "though it would be years before I understood the legacy of his photography and what he endured to be able to ply his craft." Maurice Sorrell was the definition of a guru, a self-taught master, whose ardent desire to engage in photographic storytelling and cultural preservation propelled him to develop the skills that enabled him to do just that. His success was a combination of ability and providence. He sought validation at a time when America was struggling with its Jim Crow legacy, wanting to appear progressive to the rest of the world after news cameras had exposed the nation's racial disharmony and shame. Sorrell's lens was fixed on this emerging Black America: its suffering and pride, castigation and resilience. Today, 20 years after his passing, it seems fitting to reexamine his archival history, in the context of an America that has yet to resolve its innate disdain for Black lives.

Within communities of color, the act of cataloguing family events and other acts of historic significance can be a sacred practice. Unearthing these photos, scrapbooks, audio and video recordings from a personal collection to make them available in the public realm is a necessary exercise, yet many individuals are distrustful of the organizations that are seeking to present these collections to a larger audience. As part of the exhibition, Stephanie Renée will engage some of Philadelphia's leading archivists in conversations around both the securing and preservation of our collective cultural knowledge, including issues of legal rights, ownership, royalties and physical conservation.

read more

Maurice Sorrell captured the story of the civil rights movement using his camera. He preserved in pictures such notable events as the march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, and the historic March on Washington. In his photographic career that spanned more than three decades, he also was eyewitness to urban riots of the 1950s and 1960s and captured the images of nine U.S. presidents and many members of Congress. His work regularly appeared in the publications of Johnson Publications, including Ebony and Jet magazines.

Sorrell was born about 1914 in Washington, D.C. He became fascinated with the camera at an early age, capturing family gatherings and neighborhood events. Sorrell worked as a laborer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing but sought unsuccessfully to become a photographer's apprentice.

In 1955, Sorrell accepted a photography position at the Pentagon, but because of his race he was restricted to work in the darkroom and forbidden to go out on assignments. He remained there for two years and then, though inexperienced professionally, left to become a freelance photographer.

In 1961, Sorrell joined the White House Photographers Association, becoming the first black to gain admission to that prestigious organization. Johnson Publishing Company hired Sorrell in 1962. He remained news photographer for their Washington bureau from 1962 to 1993.


In conjunction with the exhibition, curator Stephanie Renée will dialogue with featured guests about the importance of preserving history and archiving as a political and cultural project.

All programs held at Slought at 7pm unless noted otherwise.

Thursday, June 21
Daryl DeBrest and Mike D
of Reelblack

Thursday, July 5
J. Michael Harrison, host of
"The Bridge," WRTI 90.1

Thursday, July 12, 2pm
Dr. Charles L. Blockson
1330 Polett Walk, Temple University

Thursday, July 19
Dr. Deborah Willis

Related Programs

Learn about associated programs