Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.
The Great American Photographer is standing in his hallway, telling stories about the pictures on the walls.
One shows a black man at a lectern, his finger pointing and his forehead furrowed and his mouth wide open — on the Great American Photographer’s wall, Martin Luther King Jr. is preaching. Another shows a swing with two young girls, one white and one black, their smiles facing each other — on the Great American Photographer’s wall, kids are the faces of equality.
Down the hallway are more personal shots of him with President Ford, him with President Johnson, and him with President Nixon — on the Great American Photographer’s wall, a black kid from coal country grew up and met three presidents.
Midway down the hallway are two framed certificates, side by side, at the same height. One honors his wife; it’s her teaching certificate. One honors him; it’s his Pulitzer Prize. On the Great American Photographer’s wall, one is no more important than the other.
The hallway connects the living room to the bedrooms in his home in Thomasville, and the pictures on the walls connect him to all the places he’s been and all the people he’s seen. The Great American Photographer’s walls are covered with Great American Moments.
And you should see his basement.
Click. That’s it. That’s all the time it takes. A click. And it’s there forever. The photograph is a stopped moment, neither moving nor sounding.
Matthew Lewis Jr.’s life is a collection of clicks. For nearly a half-century, starting as a freelancer and continuing during 25 years at The Washington Post and later through “retirement” at The Thomasville Times, he assembled a portfolio thousands deep. He clicked Jacqueline Kennedy crying at President Kennedy’s funeral, a woman praying at the 1963 March on Washington, black men pleading to not be beaten by white officers during the Poor People’s Campaign, and a woman breaking into a store during the D.C. riots. And more. He has the Chicken King holding a chicken, Apollo 9 before it went into space, the Splendid Splinter after he quit playing, and a Beatle without his microphone. He has several of the Washington Redskins, but he prefers those of the Thomasville Bulldogs.
Lewis spent his life turning his camera toward America and clicking. He documented the world as he saw it, and he reached the pinnacle of his profession, winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.
He calls almost everyone his friend — from politicians to small-town football coaches. They became his friends simply by being his subjects, simply by taking part in his lifetime of clicking. He loves pointing a camera at people, he says, because he loves people.
He’s 80 years old, and his life’s story is told in all those photos and all those people, even if he’s not in the frame.
Let’s be clear: Matthew Lewis is going to hate to read that he’s the Great American Anything. He’s a small man with a white ponytail, and he grew up swimming in sulfur ponds in McDonald, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He went to college to become a jazz musician but packed up and came home after one semester. He was a medic with both the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. He returned and worked in a foundry blasting steel, a job that required him to wear leather leggings, jackets, and gloves, along with iron-tip shoes and a helmet that allowed him to breathe through a hose connected to a respirator.
Humility is important to Lewis. He knows where he started.
“I’ve been lucky in so many ways,” Lewis says over and over again. “And I don’t know why. I’ll never know why.”
His home is a modest structure, a one-story brick ranch on a mid-size lot in Thomasville. He and his wife, Jeannine, have a dog, Lady Day, named after Billie Holiday. Jeannine is a Thomasville native and always wanted to move close to home when they retired. They just finished remodeling their garage into a workspace, where they meet regularly with people across the community to try to raise money to film a documentary about four generations of photographers — Matthew’s granddad was a photographer, Matthew’s dad was a photographer, and Matthew’s son is a photographer. Matthew is a photographer, too, still. He always will be a photographer, in the same way that a doctor is always a doctor, in the same way that a president is always a president. He’s a photographer because it was his job, but more, it is his life.
He loves Thomasville. He’d never been hugged by a stranger before he came here; he barely hugged his mother growing up. But here in the South, he says, he’s an embracer. Shortly after he moved here, he met the editor of The Thomasville Times, began contributing a weekly photo story, and soon came aboard full-time, shooting everything a small-town newspaper needs shot — from ribbon cuttings to car accidents to parades.
He often drives around Thomasville watching people mow their grass or plant flowers. He walks the track at Thomasville High School each day, and Jeannine is on the local YMCA’s board of directors. He’s photographed everyone from queens to the homeless, Playboy bunnies to White House press secretaries. He’s been all over the world. But after 20 years here, the Great American Photographer is true-blood Thomasville.
“I can’t get over these people in Thomasville,” he says.
He set out to be the Great American Jazz Musician. His grandfather Harvey was a professional photographer for more than 60 years, and his father, Matthew Sr., worked for The Pittsburgh Courier. Lewis grew up in the newsroom and around pictures, but he idolized Johnny Hodges, a jazz legend.
He was tough. He played football and walked through town in his cleats to get to practices and games. He worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad one summer. “I had blisters on my hand, man,” he says now. “I was proud of that.”
But playing the saxophone was a tough duty of a different sort. In 1947, Lewis went off to Howard University to major in music and become the next Johnny Hodges. But in a dorm room jam session one night, he couldn’t keep up. His friends played circles around him. So he packed his saxophone and took it home and never touched it again.
He carried anger with him back to coal country. After the Navy and a brief time at the University of Pittsburgh, he got married and went back into the foundry life. His temper was legendary in town, and he’d fight any man whom he believed had wronged him.
Then, in 1956, his first wife died of cancer. And he started thinking about other things, thinking about what his father and grandfather had done. And one day at the mill, he went to his supervisor and asked for a promotion. The supervisor turned him down. Lewis was furious; he believed he’d earned it.
But then something strange happened. Almost 10 years after his dream of being a jazz legend died, he let the anger go.
“For the first time, I didn’t go into a rage,” Lewis says. “Instead, an echo just came into my head, and I said, ‘I’m going to be a photographer.’”
He moved to Baltimore, Maryland, took a job at Morgan State College in the audio-visual lab, and snapped every picture he could on the side. He took pictures of people downtown and sold them for $1. He took pictures of festivals and parades and tried to sell them. He eventually earned a regular freelance check from The Baltimore Afro-American, when the publisher hired him to do a weekly photo story.
During his travels, he met a blind wrestler at Morgan State. He followed him around and took pictures of the athlete’s life. He showed the photos to James Lewis, the founder of Morgan State’s fine arts program. James Lewis liked the photos enough that he showed them to his friend, Gordon Parks.
Parks was the first black photographer at Life magazine. He was a legend in the photography industry, one of the greatest of all American photographers. And after seeing Lewis’s photo story on the blind athlete, Parks said he wanted to meet the young man from coal country. Lewis was going to meet his new Johnny Hodges.
“Let’s order breakfast,” Parks said.
Now Lewis had a serious problem. He never eats while working. He has meals before and after work, but never during. And now, at age 33 and finally sitting in front of his idol in a hotel room in New York, he had to eat.
He did the best he could, gulping it down along with Parks’s critique. Parks liked most of the pictures. But he knew exactly what would make them better. Lewis was using a 35-millimeter camera, which allowed him to take a picture but prevented him from really telling a story. Parks suggested that a better camera, maybe a 200-millimeter, would have allowed Lewis to click a shot of the blind athlete that told the story of a blind athlete.
“You have a wonderful eye,” Parks told Lewis. “But your lenses are like your adjectives and adverbs.”
Then, as Lewis was about to leave, Parks told him he could be a great photographer, that he just needed to work at it.
“But I’m 33 years …”
Parks interrupted him.
“Never too late.”
In the photo, the woman’s brow crinkles above her raised, hopeful eyes. Her hands, pressed together in prayer, touch her mouth. She’s leaning forward behind a fence.
She’s clearly a worn woman. But she sees something better in front of her. She sees Martin Luther King Jr. She sees him delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. She does not see Matthew Lewis. But Matthew Lewis sees her.
After returning from Parks’s hotel room, Lewis caught on at The Afro-American doing freelance work. He was a star, sent to cover everything important. In one shot from Cambridge, Maryland, he captured one of the first scenes of black people and white people together singing, “We Shall Overcome,” one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. His editors sent him to cover the Kennedy funeral, and he captured one of the few images of Jacqueline Kennedy crying openly. He was everywhere.
When his editors sent him to the March on Washington, though, he didn’t have a press credential to get close to the podium, close to King.
“And I didn’t want one,” he says now. “I’m a people person.”
When the speech started, Lewis swallowed hard. It was one of the few moments in his life when he forgot what he was — a news photographer. The woman on the fence brought him back.
“I had staggered,” he says. “But then I saw that woman. And that’s all photography is, capturing emotion. And she was just standing there, with her hands like that, and so hopeful. So I just went up to her. And I went, ‘click.’ ”
The day he won the Pulitzer, Lewis was covered in chicken feathers.
It was April 1975, and he was on an assignment for The Washington Post shooting profiles of Frank Perdue, owner of Perdue Farms, at the company’s plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He followed the process from full chicken to packaging. He rode around with Perdue in a big blue Mercedes. And then he got the shot he wanted.
“He looked like a chicken, with his nose,” Lewis says. “So I said, ‘Do you mind holding a chicken?’ And he did. So I sat the Great Chicken King down with that chicken.”
As Lewis wrapped up with Perdue, his editors called the chicken plant to tell Lewis he needed to come back to the newsroom. The plant was more than two hours from the newspaper’s office.
Lewis was tired and annoyed that he had to go in. But it was part of the job. He’d been at The Washington Post for 10 years by that point. He was accustomed to changing schedules. Just six weeks after he captured his favorite shot of King — the one hanging in his hallway — Lewis was at a meeting of the Democratic leadership when word came that King had been shot. His editors needed him to leave the meeting and go to 14th Street because Washington was about to go up in flames. He spent three days on the streets during the D.C. riots, no showers, just work.
A few years later, he and Jeannine had set up an appointment to sign the closing papers on a house. Days before closing, his editors told him that the queen of England was coming to Philadelphia, and it was his assignment. Lewis protested. But the queen doesn’t wait, so Lewis moved his closing time up, and when she stepped off the plane, he was there.
He was also there in John Lennon’s apartment in New York, when the music star couldn’t keep his hands off his young wife, Yoko Ono. Watching Lennon like this, he decided to keep the music out of the shot, and he clicked Lennon with his hands behind his head, relaxed and happy.
And then there was the spring training in Florida. He’d gone down to shoot the Washington Senators and their new manager, Ted Williams. He clicked Williams behind the batting cage, not inside of it — a story told. Then he got a call. His editors needed him to leave spring training and head across Florida — the space shuttle was about to launch.
Being a news photographer is like that. So, while Lewis was upset that his editors called him back to the office that day in 1975, he went anyway. It was worth the drive.
He arrived at the office smelling like chickens and went up to the fifth floor, where he saw Editor Ben Bradlee and Deputy Managing Editor Shelby Coffey waiting for him, straight-faced. The closer he got, the more their mouths curled up. When he stepped in front of them, Bradlee threw his arms around Lewis and picked him up.
“Man,” Bradlee said. “You won the Pulitzer!”
Awards don’t define a person. But they follow him. They follow him forever. In that moment on the fifth floor of The Washington Post’s offices, the kid from coal country became the Great American Photographer.
Lewis worked for 15 more years at the Post, and became the newspaper’s first black assistant managing editor when he took over the photography staff in 1977. He hired 12 new photographers, several of whom went on to win Pulitzers themselves.
When he retired, the newspaper put up an exhibit of his work in the main lobby.
“I wouldn’t trade $10 million for my time at The Washington Post,” Lewis says.
After 25 years of living out his dreams, he gave Jeannine something she always wanted — a retirement in her hometown of Thomasville. Neither one could really stay retired. While he worked at The Thomasville Times, she was a schoolteacher in High Point. One of her students was Fantasia, of “American Idol” fame.
Last year, the Lewises went to see Fantasia perform in Greensboro. Before the show, Fantasia jumped down and hugged Jeannine. Matthew was there watching. He had forgotten his camera.
When the show started, though, he couldn’t help himself. He watched the people in the crowd raise their hands, and he began to see the composition of a concert form. So he started moving, shifting in between the arms and the excited fans, looking for a spot.
“And finally, I got one over in the corner, and it was the perfect place for a photograph,” he says. “And even though I didn’t have my camera, I put my hands up and went, ‘Click.’ I’m still killing myself that I didn’t have my camera.”
Try to follow this: It’s a Thursday afternoon in the library at Thomasville High School, and a photography teacher is taking pictures of a magazine photographer while he takes pictures of the Great American Photographer while he tries to help a boy from Queens go through his photos.
Lots of clicking.
The boy from Queens doesn’t hear anything. His name is Matthew Bryant, and he’s an 18-year-old senior at Thomasville High School. He is deaf. The photography teacher set all this up. Her name is Jo Higgins, and her official title is media coordinator. She’s been working with Bryant on completing his senior project — a photo story. To pass the project, Bryant needed a community member to spend 15 hours with him.
Higgins pulled out the phone book and called the listed photographers in town. Everybody was too busy to help. But then she reached one who had a recommendation: “Did you know,” he asked Higgins, “that there’s a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer living right here in Thomasville?”
Lewis gladly agreed to be the “community member.” He spent more than 15 hours with Bryant in the first two weeks, and he still works with him. The Great American Photographer has a new project. He’s trying to help a deaf student from Queens gain some focus.
Bryant is a sharp-dressed kid who leaves his button-down shirts untucked, wears a necklace, and sees through a pair of trendy glasses. He was raised in a single-parent home. He went to schools only for deaf children until he reached high school, when his mom moved the two of them south.
He’s always liked taking pictures. On his cell phone, he has shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and other street scenes around New York. He never knew whether they were any good. Then he met Lewis, who took him to the Veterans Day events at the local hospital and then to a Thomasville Bulldogs playoff football game in November. Lewis showed his student where to stand, what to look for, and then let him go.
So now, in the library, they’re going through the photos and picking the best to use in the photo story.
“Look at that. It’s perfect,” Lewis says of one. “He’s got the eye.”
Bryant says he’s never been the best student. He admits to acting out in school. But now as a senior, he is in a late push for college, and he’s beginning to think about life beyond the clowning. Lewis met him at the right time.
“He’s guided me and told me I have a good eye,” Bryant says through an interpreter. “I didn’t know I had a good eye until Mr. Lewis came along.”
Just then, the Great American Photographer interrupts.
“Never too late.”
The Great American Photographer is in his basement talking about his pictures.
The humming dehumidifier is set at 65 percent. Three sacks of charcoal hang from the ceiling, and when the furnace fires, you can hear the air pressing through the ductwork overhead. The walls are white. It’s not the best place for an archive of America, but that’s what it is.
Here, on two tables and a pair of metal shelves, in boxes and in crates, piled in unnervingly poor order, Lewis keeps the rest of his pictures. The faces pop from each snapshot — John Lennon, Queen Elizabeth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Martin Luther King, Grace Kelly, and so many more. He also has regular people, such as the woman praying on the fence or the two girls on a swing.
He picks up one of Harry Belafonte walking alongside Jackie Robinson. “Hmm,” he says, pausing. “I forgot I had that one.”
He also has family photos here. He has a picture of his grandfather Harvey, who was the son of indentured servants. One of Harvey’s first cameras, a 1905 Eastman Kodak Studio camera, complete with cranks and wheels, is in the corner. He has photos of his father and son, completing the four generations. He has one of a young boy wearing a Number 81 football jersey. That’s 11-year-old Marvin Lewis, Matthew’s nephew, who grew up and became head coach of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.
Down here in his basement, Lewis keeps his family’s story alongside America’s story. Together, they create his story, showing where he’s been and what he’s done — but more, who he is.
A few years ago, Lewis contacted Gordon Parks again. He sent his idol some of his work and a letter that asked Parks if he thought the idea of shooting a documentary about his family’s photography history was a good one. Parks wrote him back a typed letter that said yes, it was. And he included this line: “You’ve been a busy man.”
America defines itself by its accomplishments. They mark our progress. For instance, we celebrate the civil rights movement today not because it was a glamorous and enjoyable time, but because it was a time when we fought to become something better, a time when we evolved because we worked at it, a time when we gave the next generation a better place to live.
Lewis defines himself by the images he took — the worn-faced black woman with her hands pressed in prayer, the leader of the civil rights movement six weeks before his death, the musician who told us stories through songs, and the retired baseball legend who tried to recapture his love for the game by coaching it.
They are images of America’s parts at work, progressing and evolving. They are images that define us and our accomplishments. And they are also images of Lewis, even if he’s not in the frame. They are great American images, from a great American story.
Michael Graff is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine.