Through Lawson’s lens
For 20 years, Robert Lawson has been a constant, quiet presence at North Carolina Central University. At graduations, sports events, concerts, speeches, swearing-in ceremonies and other campus events, Lawson has been there, documenting it all with camera in hand.
In the reading room of the university’s archives recently, Lawson pointed to a few of the countless photos he has taken as the university’s photojournalist. In one photograph, a young Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with Al and Tipper Gore, wave to the crowds at NCCU in 1992, when the Clinton presidential campaign visited the campus.
Lawson said he is particularly proud of another photo from the 1992 campaign visit, in which Clinton waves to the crowds from a podium. During that visit, Lawson said he was able to get close to the candidates. Later, when it became clear Clinton would be elected, security was tightened, and he likely would not have had the access that produced those photos.
“I did it all,” said Lawson of his photo work. He pointed to a picture that is part of a poster on the wall, of comedian and writer Dick Gregory with then-NCCU-Chancellor Samuel Massie from the 1960s. “I shot that picture myself,” Lawson recalls. Other pictures are of Miss NCCU, football games, every chancellor except for James Shepard, as well as singer Gladys Knight, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and many more visitors.
In May, Lawson retired from his post as university photographer, which began in 1993. Recently, he donated his papers, photographs and negatives to the NCCU Archives. The collection represents hundreds of photographs of school administrators and faculty members, as well as visitors to the campus, said Andre Vann, coordinator of University Archives.
Lawson’s collection is “not only representative of NCCU and its activity, it’s also a snapshot of Durham,” Vann said. A digital exhibit of the archive is planned, but in the meantime Vann is working with Lawson and other alumni to identify the people in the photos and make them available for researchers and scholars.
Lawson did not plan to be a photographer. He came to NCCU as a student in 1958. Alex Rivera, who founded the school’s first news bureau, was the university photographer then. Rivera “was like a father to me,” Lawson said. “I had to get a job to pay my way through school,” he said. Rivera let it be known that he would pay a student to cut his grass and do other yard work. Other students balked, but Lawson, who had worked on his family’s farm in Roxboro, took the job.
Rivera became his teacher and mentor until Rivera’s death in 2008. “After I got finished doing what I was doing in the yard, I would go up and learn the darkroom,” Lawson said. He remembers the first assignment Rivera gave him, to shoot a basketball game in Louisburg. When he returned to the darkroom to process the film, it was blank because he had not synchronized his camera with the type of flashbulb he was using. “From that day, I never missed a single one,” Lawson said. “That taught me a lesson.”
Lawson, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NCCU, worked as a freelancer with Rivera, and they shot photos for high schools across the state. Lawson joined the university in 1992. When Rivera retired in 1993, Lawson was appointed full time as the photographer for NCCU.
Lawson eventually became Rivera’s teacher when cameras went digital. “He wouldn’t touch that,” Lawson said. “I had to teach him.” Lawson also was skeptical of digital cameras at first – using a digital and film camera to shoot assignments. He finally went all digital, and said he does not plan to go back to film.
Like Rivera, Lawson never sought the spotlight or recognition for his work, Vann said. In a self-deprecating way, Lawson agrees with Vann that he has taken a lot of photographs that document the school. “I think I might have seen a little bit,” Lawson said.
Rivera once said in an interview that he thought of his work first as a job, a trait Lawson also shares. He never saved his photographs to create 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,” Lawson said.