Professional photographer William Fambrough Jr., fambrough.com, of Smithville was born and raised in Kansas City, near the 18th and Vine Jazz District. His father, William Fambrough Sr. (1916-1983), was a longtime photographer for The Call in Kansas City, photographing city life and sports teams.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Fambrough Sr. documented historic civil rights struggles in Kansas City, including the fight to desegregate lunch counters, hotels and restaurants and the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Fambrough Sr.’s photographs also appeared in The Kansas City Star with a credit to The Call but not Fambrough.
Many of Fambrough Sr.’s photographs are included in an interactive display at “Through the Lens: Visions of African American Experience 1950-1970” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibit is free and runs through April 3.
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Fambrough Jr. will give a presentation about his father’s life and work at 4 p.m. March 19 at Second Baptist Church, 3620 E. 39th St.
This conversation, shortened and edited for clarity, took place at the museum. The two accompanying photographs by Fambrough Sr., provided by his son, are not part of the exhibit.
Q: Your father was able to make a living his whole life from photography. How did he get into the field?
A: He knew that he wanted to be a photographer. He begged his family until they bought him a camera. He was 11 or 13 when he got it.
He worked at The Call from a young age until he retired and also did a lot of freelance work on the side. His whole career at The Call, he only used one camera, a (Graflex) Speed Graphic.
People called him “One Shot Fambrough” because he was famous for being able to get the shot he wanted in just one take.
Q: Did your dad come home with stories after covering historic events such as the March on Washington?
A: He didn’t talk a lot. Or, I should say, he didn’t talk a lot about his work. He could talk a lot about things that weren’t important. He always had a joke.
Q: When your dad went to work for The Call, The Star didn’t have any black photographers on staff, but it ran photos from The Call. What was it like for him, seeing his photos in The Star with a credit to The Call but not his name?
A: That always hurt him, that he was never able to get any recognition from The Star.
Q: What did you learn about photography from your dad?
A: Whatever I learned from him was by osmosis. I didn’t want to be a photographer when I was a kid. I wanted to be Perry Mason.
My dad would take me down into the darkroom and it was smelly and I’d tell him, “I don’t like it down here. I want to go outside and play basketball.”
I went to UMKC and enrolled in political science. I wanted to be an attorney, so I took a pre-law course and realized it was about being in the library. It wasn’t like Perry Mason. I realized: This is not for me.
At the time I had a Polaroid camera, and I was taking pictures with it and they were terrible — I knew they were terrible because I knew what a good picture looked like. I got frustrated and threw (the Polaroid) against the wall and bought a 35mm camera, and the first roll of film I developed, I was hooked.
I went back to my dad and said, “This photography thing is great! Will you teach me?”
He said, “You had your chance. Go out and find your own way.” And I did.
Q: What kind of photography do you do?
A: Everything. I don’t do weddings.
Q: What jobs do you like best?
A: Anything that is new. Once I photograph something, even if it’s very exciting, once I’m through, I’m done with that.
I like experimenting. I love doing things I’ve never done before, things that will tax me.
I had an aunt that hated having her picture taken. In every family picture, she is hiding behind someone else. I caught her once in her true state when she didn’t know I was taking her picture. It was the best picture anyone ever took of her. I love challenges like that.
“Through the Lens: Visions of African American Experience 1950-1970” features more than 60 images by seven photographers taken during the civil rights era. It runs through April 3 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. The exhibit is free. Go to nelson-atkins.org for more information.