Robert Lawson, NCCU’s ‘photographic memory,’ dies at 74

May. 12, 2014 @ 08:03 PM

Robert Lawson, whose photographs chronicled graduations, sports contests, guest speakers and other events at N.C. Central University and in the wider Durham community, died Sunday at age 74.
Mr. Lawson, who earned a bachelor’s degree from NCCU in 1962, and a master’s in 1977, retired from his alma mater last year after 20 years as university photographer. He was a constant, quiet presence with his camera. He photographed university events, as well as guest artists and speakers – among them Dick Gregory, Gladys Knight and Ellis Marsalis. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mr. Lawson photographed Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Al and Tipper Gore when they made a campaign stop at NCCU.
He also was a constant fixture at the annual Bull Durham Blues Festival.
Last year, Mr. Lawson donated his papers, photographs and negatives to the NCCU Archives for preservation. “There probably was not one event, and not just on campus, where one could not find him,” said Andre Vann, coordinator of University Archives at NCCU. “That speaks to the diversity of his work. …. He contributed to the photographic memory of so many events” including family reunions, weddings and other community events, Vann said. Mr. Lawson also contributed photographs to The Carolina Times, a newspaper that has covered Durham’s African-American community since the 1920s.
The university’s archives continues to work with alumni to identify the people in Lawson’s many photographs, and plans someday to have some of the images available digitally as a way to “make sure he is remembered for his work,” Vann said.
Mr. Lawson “was known by the entire Durham community for his warm spirit and steadfast commitment to his beloved alma mater,” Rep. G. K. Butterfield, who represents North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, said in a statement. “It is with a heavy heart that I express extreme sadness over the passing of my longtime friend…” Butterfield stated. Butterfield earned his undergraduate and law degrees from NCCU.
When he donated his work to NCCU’s archive, Mr. Lawson said he did not plan to be a photographer. When he came to NCCU in 1958, Alex Rivera was the university photographer who became Mr. Lawson’s teacher and mentor. “He was like a father to me,” Mr. Lawson told The Herald-Sun in a previous interview. Their relationship developed when Mr. Lawson took a job cutting grass and doing yard work to help pay for his schooling. “After I got finished doing what I was doing in the yard, I would go up and learn the darkroom,” Mr. Lawson said. He worked as a freelancer with Rivera. When Rivera retired in 1993, Mr. Lawson became the university’s full-time photographer.
Mr. Lawson never sought recognition for his work, Vann said, and was known for his self-deprecating manner. “I think I might have seen a little bit,” Mr. Lawson said when he donated his work to the archive. Photography to him was first a job, and he had no intention of creating an archive. “I was doing it in order to feed the family, but in doing so I maybe captured some stuff that people wanted to see,” Mr. Lawson said at the time.
Robert Lawson is survived by his wife of 49 years, Clara, his daughter Apryle, a son-in-law, grandchildren, and a host of relatives and friends. As of deadline, funeral arrangements had not been announced.