Monday, October 17, 2011

In focus at UNCG: Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer speaks Oct. 19 in Jackson Library, by Michelle Hines


Across a front page featuring one of Matthew Lewis’ pictures, the iconic image of a white girl and a black girl swinging together, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee scrawled “Just Beautiful!” with a red marker.

A few years later, in 1975, Bradlee would summon Lewis to his office to tell him he had won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Lewis, an African American, was the first Post photographer to win a Pulitzer.

“It’s about capturing that emotion on film,” Lewis says of his calling. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Lewis, who now lives in Thomasville, will share his photographs and photographs by his grandfather, Harvey James Lewis, who forged a career in photography in the late 1800s, Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Jackson Library.

The event, moderated by Jeri Rowe of the Greensboro News & Record, is sponsored by the Friends of the UNCG University Libraries. Lewis will begin his presentation at 5 p.m. in the Hodges Reading Room on the second floor of the library; it is free and open to the public.

As a boy, Lewis often toted his grandfather’s heavy panoramic camera. He has a print from that camera that measures a whopping 31 ½ inches by 9 ½ inches.

“He’s the story, not me,” he says of “HJ” as his grandfather was known. HJ was the son of indentured slaves, and largely self-taught.

Lewis’ father was also a photographer, working for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American paper with a circulation over 400,000.

Yet Lewis never thought of going into photography. Never.

He wanted to be a sax player but quit on the spot when he got “blown out” during a jam session at Howard University. He just couldn’t improvise.

Finally, after years of grinding away in a steel foundry, an “echo” came into his mind. “I can become a photographer,” it said. Clear as crystal.

Since then, Lewis’ subjects have included everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys to Queen Elizabeth II. He retired to Thomasville, although he continues to take photos as staff photographer for the Thomasville Times.

Lewis, a humble man, loves to repeat a quip from a close friend: “Matthew’s been in and out of focus his whole life,” she said.

For more information on Lewis visit, contact Barry Miller at barry_miller@uncg.edu or 336-256-0112.