There's quite the deal happening inside a tall building in downtown Houston. For about $1 to park at One Allen Center, you can get a 30-year visual history of Houston black society. The lone artist? Photographer Louise Martin.
In her three-decade career that spanned the 1950s through the '80s, Martin captured the ins and outs of Houston’s black community as a society photographer. From weddings to babies to speeches, Martin was sure to be there. She even went on to document the Houston Freedom Riders and photograph the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The exhibit features many of her portraits—Martin's specialty—as well as a number of photos of Dr. King. The collection also includes memorabilia like Martin's camera and photos of the artist jet-setting around the country or attending photography conferences.
Sarah Trotty, a former art professor at Texas Southern University, says Martin's work is probably spread all over Houston—although you might not even know it. Martin never put names on her photographs unless she knew you; usually, she would just add a stamp on the back of photos to identify her work. After hearing about the exhibit, people have already brought Trotty and Sally Reynolds, the exhibit's curator, personal photos with that signature stamp.
Although Martin had a great life and a brilliant photography career, Trotty says her experience was quite rare. Martin had to leave Houston to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the American School of Photography; often in the South, only white students could take photography classes.
“They were just wonderful experiences that very few people had at that time in the '50s and '60s,” Trotty says. “Houston didn’t really integrate fully until the ’70s even though they started integrating schools a bit earlier. In this area, if you know your Texas history, those things just didn’t happen back then.”
But most of Martin's photos were locked away after her death in 1995. She had already boxed away her work by the end of her career, and it remained that way until Reynolds started collaborating with Trotty, a longtime friend of Martin’s, to form this exhibit and piece together a legacy.
“If we didn’t have this, we wouldn’t have a record of this city at this time in this community,” Reynolds says. “Her legacy is the legacy of many photographers, and that is documenting the people of her time, and these people were not photographed by white photographers.”
The Photography of Louise Ozelle Martin, thru April 20. Free. One Allen Center, 500 Dallas St.