Houston photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr. is best known for the richly textured humanity in his portraits of life in the city’s African American neighborhoods. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1946, Hudnall experienced the power of words and images to shape one’s perspective on life and the world around him as a boy. “My father was an amateur photographer who documented family events and milestones,” he explains, “and my grandmother—who lived next door—was a storyteller. Miss Bonnie Jean. She would sit out on the porch with her can of Garrett Snuff and illustrate the stories that she told with our community photo album.”
After arriving in Houston on a Greyhound Bus in 1969 to study art at Texas Southern University, Hudnall learned the practical wisdom of that artistic foundation when he met TSU artist-professor John Biggers, who soon became a mentor and friend. “In the very first seminar of Dr. Biggers that I attended,” Hudnall says, “he told the students that one of the most important things he could teach us is the simple yet profound fact that ‘art is life.’” And there is great value, the photographer stresses, in creating artistic documentation of the everyday people and activities in one’s own community.
Hudnall first witnessed the “magic” of image making in high school when a physics instructor developed film and printed negatives as an example of chemical change. He bought his first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, at the PX in Vietnam while serving in the Marine Corps in 1966. After his military service, a friend told him that Texas Southern had a good art department, and he chose TSU over universities closer to home.
It was a fortuitous choice. Hudnall recalls that teachers like the painter and muralist Biggers, painter Kermit Oliver, and sculptor Carroll Simms created a welcoming yet challenging atmosphere in the TSU art department. “We could come in early in the morning, and we could work until 10:30 or 11:00 at night,” he recalls. “People would play music and paint. There would be several people working in ceramics, several in weaving, and there was always a professor on hand providing demonstrations. When I learned there was a darkroom on campus, I asked Dr. Biggers if I could use it. He said, ‘Sure man, go right ahead.’ It was like that.”
The first images Hudnall made at TSU were of fellow students’ artwork, developed in classmate Nathaniel Sweet’s room with water from Sweet’s aquarium that housed his pet turtles. Soon, Dr. Thomas F. Freeman recruited Hudnall and another student photographer, Ray Carrington III, to make images for the Model Cities Program, a component of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives. “That’s when I really discovered Houston,” Hudnall says, “working for the Model Cities Program and photographing everyday life in the Third Ward, Fourth Ward, the Fifth Ward, the Sunnyside neighborhood, South Park. Even though it was much more urban than Hattiesburg, you didn’t have to go far at that time to get a rural feeling.” Carrington later developed a photography program for Houston’s Jack Yates High School, in which student images of the Third Ward were exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. NPR said the program inspired students to “see Houston with different eyes.”
Aside from a short time working for Ebony magazine, Hudnall has continued working as a photographer for TSU, a position he still holds today. And though he has extensively traveled and photographed internationally to document the university’s debate team (Dr. Freeman remains active at age 99, serving as TSU debate coach emeritus), Hudnall’s most important body of work stems from the Model Cities Program days photographing Houston’s African-American and Mexican-American neighborhoods.