Front Page: The Photographs of Arthur Ellis
Front Page: The Photographs of Arthur Ellis surveys the career of a legendary Washington-based photographer who captured the look and style of the nation’s capital for over forty years. Ellis photographed feature pictures and national news for The Washington Post from 1930 through the early 1970s, bringing the city to life for newspaper readers on a daily basis. His evocative images open a window into the history and culture of this growing region during a period of considerable change. The exhibition brings together for the first time many of Ellis’ best original prints, along with news clippings, scrapbooks, and memorabilia from his years as an influential photojournalist.
How do we understand history through photographs? How do these images alter or represent this history? By examining a cross section of one photographer’s output — one who was looking closely at a community of international importance over a long period of time — we can see how pictures of daily life can be as telling as pictures of momentous occasions. In Ellis’ work, the undercurrents and nuances of history are as important as its milestones; Washington’s citizens are as significant as its power brokers.
The playtime, nightlife, fashions, and lifestyle of Washington are all present in these photographs, as are the machinations and ceremonies of power. One day Ellis documented a science fair at a local school, another he recorded the arrival of dignitaries from foreign lands. Together these photographs describe the city’s interests and its place in the world. Moreover, they reveal how images that define a regional ethos were edited and presented by a major urban newspaper. Ellis’ gift was his genuine enthusiasm for his hometown — his images of weather and children are as thoughtful and engaging as his portraits of presidents and personalities.
Born in Washington in 1912, of Syrian ancestry, Arthur Ellis began his career at The Post in 1929 as a copy boy. He joined the photography staff in 1930 and was assigned to cover every type of story, ranging from society and sports to city life and national news. In 1936–37 he wrote weekly columns for the paper called “Camera Angles,” which were primarily about Washington’s amateur and professional photographic communities, although he also reviewed photography news of national importance. He was well-versed in the history and art of photography and he spent considerable time roaming the city’s museums, from the Corcoran to the National Gallery of Art, for inspiration. During World War II he volunteered to serve as a motion picture photographer in the Army. Ellis was photo editor for The Washington Post in the early 1950s and was the paper’s chief photographer when he retired in the late 1970s.
The prints in this exhibition are selected from Ellis’ personal collection of pictures retrieved from newspaper files or printed for previous exhibitions. Together they comprise a remarkable archive that represents an ongoing slice of Washington life. We see today that Ellis was conscious of making pictures that would connect people to their own history as it was unfolding. The news is always about what happens “now,” reported on a daily basis. Yet looking back through this time capsule spanning forty years, through the varied faces of several generations of one community, we can trace the history that delineates who we are today.
Front Page: The Photographs of Arthur Ellis is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In addition to the photographs given to the museum by Arthur Ellis’ estate, his widow Frederica Ellis bequeathed an endowment to the Corcoran College of Art + Design in 2001. The Arthur J. Ellis Scholarship Fund provides scholarships for rising freshmen in the College’s Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree Program in Photojournalism. This innovative program is taught by award-winning photojournalists from the White House News Photographers’ Association and the National Geographic Society.