Rediscovering a Pioneering Female Photographer

For one Trinity senior, a four-year academic journey culminates in a photography exhibition 91 years in the making.

A 100-page honors thesis doesn’t just happen. For senior American studies major Sophia Alyssa Simpson, the seeds of her thesis topic were planted as early as her junior year, when she took a course called “Thought and Culture in American Society” and chose to write her final paper on two 19th-century photographers. An avid photography student, Simpson also took photography classes, she participated in a photojournalism summer trip to Cambodia, and completed two graduate-level American studies courses in photography and social conscience, and 20th century commercial photography.
By fall 2009, those intellectual seeds were ready to sprout. Simpson received a $2,500 Student-Initiated Research Grant from the College to write her honors thesis on women photographers from the 1930s. While researching potential subjects, one name stood out—Charlotte Brooks—not because she was famous, but because she was still alive. Simpson even found a phone number on the Library of Congress Web site.Assuming she would reach an agent, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed.
“And she answered,” says Simpson, still a little surprised. “It was her home phone number.” She asked Brooks for an interview and without hesitation, the 91-year-old photographer gave Simpson her address, an hour from Hartford.
Simpson found Brooks living alone at the end of a dirt road in rural New York. Still in good health, Brooks gamely answered Simpson’s questions about some of the bigger names in early 20th century photography, like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. When the topic turned to Brooks’s own work, the aging artist was modest at first, then slowly rose from her chair and said, “Well, let me show you.”
“She lead me into the back of her house,” says Simpson, “and there was this incredible two-story loft room packed full of photographs, haphazardly jumbled, nothing in archival boxes. It was raining that day and there was water dripping from the ceiling, and there were prints of Duke Ellington, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, all lying around, going to ruins. It quickly became clear that she was my project.”
Simpson soon discovered that Brooks was herself a pioneering female photographer, the first and only women staff photojournalist at Look magazine during the 1950s and 1960s. Largely self-taught, Brooks produced iconic photo essays for the magazine—a popular contemporary of Life magazine—including images of female doctors, teachers, celebrities, politicians, and everyday life in racially segregated America.
Simpson was so moved by Brooks’s work, and so frustrated that it was deteriorating in a leaky room, that she wanted to do more than write about Brooks’ vivid images. She wanted to show them to the world. With the grant money and the enormous support of her major adviser, Lou Masur, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in American Institutions and Values, Simpson arranged for the first-ever exhibition of Brooks’s work. It ran from April 19 through Commencement in the Mather Art Gallery on the Trinity campus.
For Simpson, a Trinity Presidential Scholar, the Brooks exhibit is only the latest in a long line of exceptional Trinity-sponsored educational experiences.
“I have been exceptionally fortunate; I was able to go to Cambodia to study and practice photojournalism, and Barcelona to study visual culture and design, both supported by the College,” says the senior from San Francisco. Simpson says she wouldn’t trade the rich academic resources and faculty engagement she found at Trinity for any other college.
Professor Masur was so impressed by Simpson’s thesis that he helped her submit an article on Brooks’s life and work to Aperture magazine and encouraged her to write a book proposal for a collection of essays on Brooks’s contribution to the American photographic canon.
My adviser is helping me get articles in national publications,” says Simpson. “He’s bending over backwards, even offering to co-author a book with me. That's the quality of education you get here at Trinity.