The Black Star Collection Lives On
December 2008

by Dennis Brack

At a time when our images travel instantly from our cameras directly to clients and potential clients all over the world, some of us remember when image delivery was not so fast.

© W. Eugene Smith/Black Star
Iconic war photograph of a U.S. soldier holding a dying infant in the Saipan mountains, 1944.
Our rolls of Tri-X arrived at Black Star and were whisked back to the lab by a pleasant man named Jack. The film would be developed, contact sheets made, and set out for editing. From 1936 to 1960, the original Black Star owners made the selections. From the Sixties to the Nineties Howard Chapnick looked at every contact sheet, circled the very best, made a few crops and Jack took them back to the lab. It was then the magic began. Men who we never really saw made 8x10 and 11x14 double-weight, mostly fibre-based prints. These were not ordinary prints—they were the best! Deep blacks and rich halftones that brought the subjects to life. The prints seemed to have a sophisticated pride that made them stand out. Everyone knew the Black Star prints.

About 10 prints were made of every selected image and half of them would be rushed to publications like Life, Time and Newsweek. The rest would be put in files to wait for customer requests. For years, researchers would quickly pick these prints from those huge and old greenish-brown file cabinets and put them into envelopes for messengers to deliver.

The file cabinets contained thousands of prints that I had never heard of until recently. The roots of Black Star were formed in Germany in the early 1930s. The owners saw the rise of Hitler and decided to move to the United States.

© Charles Moore/Black Star
A man is attacked by a police dog during the Birmingham civil-rights campaign, Alabama, May 3, 1963.
They arrived with suitcases crammed full of prints (why they didn't bring negatives is a mystery) of World War I and the history of the first two decades of the 20th century. These files are an invaluable source for historians.

Through an anonymous donor, Ryerson University purchased the Black Star work prints with the hope of establishing a center for historians and picture researchers to visit and learn. At this point I must emphasize that Ryerson purchased the prints and not the reproduction rights—the individual Black Star photographers retain these rights.

© Dennis Brack/Black Star
The Beatles' first concert in the United States, held in what is now a very small ice rink in Washington, D.C.
Ryerson is a university in downtown Toronto, Canada, with more than 25,000 students. The university has graduate and undergraduate courses in arts, communications and design, engineering, and management. The university has a Master's program in photographic preservation and collection management so there is no better place for the 300,000 prints from those old green cabinets to reside for decades and perhaps centuries.

I visited Ryerson last week. The students and staff are truly thrilled to have this valuable collection. The building that will eventually house the collection exists and parts of it have massive still and video studios, 26 wet lab darkrooms, and classrooms. Construction work has begun to transform the large brick 1960s' structure into a glass showcase, which will be an attraction for scholars, students, and visitors to Toronto.

Artist's rendering of the Ryerson Photography Gallery and Research Centre at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. The Gallery and Research Centre will house an invaluable collection of Black Star photographs.
As a Black Star photographer I was pleased to see that part of the photographs that I worked so hard to make are in a place that will be around far longer than I will be. Perhaps some of the stories behind these photographs will be available to historians in the future.

The staff at Ryerson is anxious to talk to Black Star photographers and collect stories about their work. I was the first in a program of bringing Black Star photographers to Toronto for these debriefs. It was a worthwhile and very pleasant time. Take a look at to learn more about their program.

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© Dennis Brack

Dennis Brack has been a Black Star photographer, based in Washington, D.C., for the last four decades.