Editor’s Note: For National Photography Month, ASMP is featuring past interviews of the legends and influencers involved in the early years of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (name changed in 1992 to the American Society of Media Photographers to reflect the diversity of member work). Our second featured interview is photojournalist Charlotte Brooks. View timeline of ASMP history.
Charlotte Brooks Bio
Cross-posted from the Library of Congress Biographical Essays
Brooks was born Charlotte Finkelstein in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. While still a child, she made photographs and, by age twelve, had built herself a darkroom. She enjoyed expressive activities, not scripted ones. In high school, she abandoned “structured” ballet for modern dance, which allowed for more spontaneity and freedom of movement.
When Brooks graduated from the prestigious Erasmus Hall public high school in 1936, she wanted to attend a school far from home but settled for Brooklyn College due to limited family finances and her parents’ desire to keep her nearby. Trying to avoid anti-Semitism, she changed her surname to “Brooks,” which was derived from her grandmother’s maiden name Eisenbruch. Brooks benefited particularly from the sage advice and guidance provided by labor leader and economics professor Theresa Wolfson (1897-1970) and her husband, Austin Wood, who taught psychology at Brooklyn College. Brooks also continued modern dance at the college level. In 1940, she earned a B.A. degree and went on to graduate school in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota with financial support from some of her college professors.
Brooks worked as a photojournalist for Look magazine from 1951 until 1971. As a sociologist with a camera, she liked to document changes in American life, including politics, health and science, education, families, urban and suburban issues, entertainment, racial conflicts, and women’s roles. Her biography is a story of defying the odds, because she achieved her objectives at a time when her gender, religious background, and sexual preference presented her with extra challenges.
The only long-term woman staff photographer in the magazine’s nearly thirty-five year run, Brooks came to feel accepted as “one of the guys.” She covered the same kinds of issues as the men photographers, while most of her contemporary female colleagues were confined to soft news and the women’s pages. Taken together, her 450 photographic assignments for Look form a two-decade long sociological survey of the United States.
Charlotte Brooks passed on March 15, 2014.
ASMP: How did you first come to the ASMP?
Brooks: I don’t know how I knew about it, maybe through Arthur Rothstein (bio), maybe not. I knew that, for some time before I joined it, I was very ambivalent about joining it. I don’t know whether it was because I didn’t feel professional enough early on. I’m not much of a joiner anyhow, and I didn’t get around to joining until, as I remember, after I joined the Look magazine staff. That was in 1951.
I think I joined at that point because I felt that, the way the magazine was set up, photographers didn’t really have any rights to speak of. And there was something in the back of my head that made me feel that maybe through ASMP, the staff photographer’s lot could be improved. That’s sort of my recollection, because I know I toyed with it and rejected it for several years, until finally I decided to join.
ASMP: I noticed that in the Bulletins they talk about you in 1956.
Brooks: I was asked to run for president along around that time. But I felt it wouldn’t be right because I think there were three women in all of the Society, and it didn’t seem right to me for a woman to be heading up an organization which consisted largely of men. It’s interesting to contemplate that thought at this moment in our history.
Among other things, we worked up the first handbook of pay scale. And I think I have my old booklet that we issued. We were going to research and then continue recording information and send it out to members. I remember we put it into a loose-leaf cover so that we could do that. But that must have been maybe ’53 or ’54, somewhere in there.
ASMP: What was the organization like when you joined?
Brooks: There were some loudmouths.
ASMP: Did you feel any negative attitudes toward women photographers? Did you have any sense of that?
Brooks: I know that there was discrimination, and I know that I was getting less money at Look than the men were.
ASMP: And also within the ASMP?
Brooks: I wouldn’t say so. I have no recollection of anything of that kind, possibly because I was so involved with it.
ASMP: You really were getting less money than the men photographers?
Brooks: Sure. And there were limits as to what women photographers were considered to be capable of covering. There were actual legal limits, like a woman couldn’t get on a submarine, couldn’t photograph on a U.S. Navy vessel. I know that because I was turned down for some coverage there. And generally, the attitude was, “They can do children, education, medicine” — which is what I did a lot of. Once I did a para-rescue story, but that was only because the man who was supposed to do it couldn’t do it. But I wouldn’t say that at ASMP there was any discrimination.
Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation.