Charlotte Brooks, a Photographer for Look Magazine, Dies at 95

March 24, 2014

By PAUL VITELLO

March 20, 2014

Charlotte Brooks, one of only a handful of women ever hired to work as a full-time staff photographer at Look magazine, the major rival to Life in the heyday of American glossy photojournalism, died on March 15 at her home in Holmes, N.Y. She was 95.

Anne Page, a godchild, confirmed the death.

Like most women in journalism during the 1950s and ’60s, Ms. Brooks was assigned almost exclusively at Look to provide pictures for what were known as women’s features: articles about children, families, education, homes, food and other constituent parts of women’s supposed domain.

As a freelance photographer eager for full-time work when Look offered her a job in 1951, Ms. Brooks embraced those subjects without complaint. Over the next 20 years, associates said, her work became notable for capturing layers of depth in those types of stories that few ever had.

From 1951 to the magazine’s final issue, in 1971, she contributed to some 450 features, including articles about patients and their families at a pediatric hospital for the chronically ill; the impact on the morale of second graders at an Iowa elementary school when their teacher was named winner of the 1959 Teacher of the Year award; and life on the road with Fats Domino in the mid-1950s, a time when riots were breaking out among integrated crowds of teenagers drawn to his shows. (The children in the story: rioting teenagers.)

She produced a photo essay about Minnijean Brown, one of the nine black teenagers who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, under police escort through white mobs. Ms. Brooks went to see Ms. Brown several months later, after the world’s attention had moved on and Ms. Brown had been expelled for scuffling with white students who had shoved and spat on her in the cafeteria.

Ms. Brooks’s photos explored the emotional toll of those historic months in one teenager’s life, and the way her family rallied to help her.

If she resented being the only staff photographer assigned so regularly to children-and-families stories — the magazine never sent her to cover a war or a football game — Ms. Brooks kept it to herself, said Beverly W. Brannan, curator of 20th-century documentary photography at the Library of Congress, where most of Ms. Brooks’s pictures are archived. Ms. Brannan is the author of a biographical essay about Ms. Brooks on the library’s website.

“She had the mind of a sociologist,” Ms. Brannan said, citing Ms. Brooks’s interest in group behavior. The photographic record Ms. Brooks left amounts to a chronicle of “ the changing fabric of America in the ’50s and ’60s,” she said.

Sent on tour with Duke Ellington in 1955, Ms. Brooks returned with the story of grueling bus travel, transcendent musical performances and the many extra miles that even a jazz great like Ellington was forced to travel in search of food and lodging when the tour entered the segregated South.

Ms. Brooks was born Charlotte Finkelstein on Sept. 16, 1918, in Brooklyn, where her family owned a women’s sportswear company. While attending Brooklyn College in the 1930s, she adopted an Anglicized name — Brooks was derived from her grandmother’s maiden name, Eisenbruch — as did many Jews who aspired to enter professions at a time when anti-Semitism remained pervasive. After graduating, she began graduate work in psychology at the University of Minnesota, intending to become a social worker, but changed her mind.

Back in New York, Ms. Brooks studied photography informally with Barbara Morgan, who was renowned for her portraits of dancers, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. It was in 1942, at Ms. Morgan’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y., that she first picked up a camera with interest.

After taking a few pictures outdoors, Ms. Brannan wrote, “Brooks experienced what she referred to as ‘buck fever’ ” — a term describing a novice hunter’s sweaty prospect of a first kill. Photography, she decided, was her calling.

Julie Arden, Ms. Brooks’s partner since 1941, died in 2009. Her survivors include a brother, Herbert Finkelstein, and a sister, Rita Berman.

After Look magazine went out of business, Ms. Brooks and Ms. Arden moved upstate to Dutchess County, where Ms. Brooks began teaching photography. She and Ms. Arden helped found the White Pond Art Center in White Pond, N.Y.

Originally published by The New York Times