by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
With an affable, easy-going style, a ready smile, gregarious sense of humor and a ready opinion on the issues of the day—whether it be the state of Black Milwaukee, politics, even sports—noted photographer Harry Kemp was more than just a “guy who took pictures.”
No, to Milwaukee’s Black community Harry was our Griot.
With his always present camera Harry put into pictures what the African Griots did with words and memory: Record the births, celebrations big and small, tributes, marriages, sporting events, children playing, community forums and meetings on critical issues, political campaigns from aldermanic to presidential.
Harry photographed festivals and block parties, parades, protest demonstrations, social gatherings, church functions, funerals (but not many of those; it didn’t fit Harry’s personality, which was always upbeat and positive) the arts, fashion shows, beauty pageants (among Harry’s “favorite” assignments—even if he wasn’t assigned them), sporting events, entertainers and celebrities, concerts, the well-known and the unknown.
In other words, Harry “recorded” life, our lives, the life of a people and a community he loved with all his heart. That love came through in the black and white, color images hard copy and later digital images we and other Black and Latino newspapers he worked for printed on its pages.
I use Harry’s first name after first reference because his relationship to me—first as a reporter and later editor (and defacto photo editor) and the staff of the Community Journal, as well as others who knew, worked with, admired and loved him is too personal, too long and too impactful on me and this newspaper to simply refer to him by his last name, the required journalistic rule when referring to a subject after first using their whole name to introduce them in the story.
To know Harry was to know him as a friend, mentor, father-figure, uncle, brother and an elder, which is a powerful title and position he carried with great modesty, but was so richly deserved
I’m also using first person in writing this obituary because Harry’s death hit me harder than I expected. Like most Black Milwaukeeans who probably first heard publically of his passing Friday morning, September 29 on radio station 1290 WMCS’s “Morning Magazine Show” with Eric Vonn.
My wife and I did a simultaneous “what” when Eric announced the news. According to his sister Yvonne, (who for the last 13 years has been his business partner, apprentice, secretary, photo cataloger, assignment taker, chauffer, guardian and confidant), Harry died in his sleep early Thursday morning. He was 78.
I had seen Harry only three days before his passing. For the last few weeks of his life when his sister Yvonne Kemp’s schedule made it impossible for her to pick him up and bring him to the office, I’d hop in my car and pick-up Harry, who would be waiting for me at one of his favorite haunts.
Once back at the office, I’d get his photos and information of the events he took and drop him off at one of his “hangouts” before he went to cover a Brewers game or other event.
Several months earlier, Harry had suffered a stroke. Fortunately there was no permanent paralysis. After rigorous rehabilitation, Harry went back to photographing our community, albeit a little slower. But he was still Harry. Still gregarious and willing to share his knowledge and ideas with who ever was lucky enough to come in contact with him.
Though he was walking and talking fine after the stroke, I just didn’t like the idea of him traversing across town on bus and then on foot to get to the MCJ’s offices—which are located in a neighborhood I can only describe as “challenging,” even for someone younger and healtier.
To and from the office, as well as between looking at photos he took at an event, we would talk about a wide range of topics. As I had done for the 20-plus years I’ve known and worked with Harry, I’d hang on every kernel of wisdom he shared, absorbing it for future reference and use in my life.
Yvonne believes Harry went to the Brewers game and took photographs of them clinching the home-field advantage for the division playoffs by defeating the Florida Marlins Wednesday evening at Miller Park.
“He must have left the ballpark and celebrated at either Mykanos (an eastside restaurant) or Victors (a nearby bar), both his favorite places to hang out,” Yvonne theorized Monday at the MCJ where she came to take care of some affairs for Harry between fulfilling her own photographic assignments and making arrangements for Harry’s funeral, which would be private and for family only on Thursday, October 6.
“Harry probably stayed till closing and went home. He must have sat down in his chair, emptied his pockets and took a nap…and never woke up. That’s where I found him. I thought he was asleep.”
Yvonne had gone to Harry’s East side apartment concerned that she had not heard from him about attending the festivities celebrating the Brewers’ division championship.
During his recovery, Yvonne added another title to her resume: Caretaker, a title and duty she took on with love and affection for her brother.
“I worked with Harry for the last 13 years. I learned a lot, especially about the community, political officials, and community activists,” Yvonne said.
“During that time I came to realize how much he loved what he was doing; and he passed that love to me. I can’t fill his shoes, but I’m going to do the best that I can do.
“I hope I can make my brother proud by trying to do as good a job as he did. I’m going to miss my brother.”
Born in Racine to Marie Gaines, herself a community legend who helped give charm and grace to many young girls—a number of whom grew up to be community and business leaders themselves, Harry grew up in Milwaukee where he received his first camera at age 12: A Brownie.
Reportedly, Harry studied journalism while in Texas and studied photography. Harry served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s. After the service, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service and Internal Revenue Service.
Harry was also active in the community. Reuben Harpole, another community icon who knew Harry since he was 16-years-old, noted that Harry was one of the key members of Triple O (Organization Of Organizations) along with Larry Harwell, a former key aide to former State Rep. Polly Williams.
“Triple O worked to correct a lot of problems in Milwaukee’s public schools before he took his first 50,000 photos,” Reuben said, adding Harry’s photos are “our history, a living history of the African American community.”
Though quiet, Harry—according to Reuben—was a tremendous listener. “He had this tremendous capacity to listen and he had good common sense. Whatever he said was meaningful. He was knowledgable. He knew our community and everyone in the community.”
Harry’s first job with the Black press was with the old Milwaukee Star newspaper, owned by Jerrel Jones and Robert (Bob) Thomas.
“He had a concrete personality. Once it’s set it’s there. He wasn’t wishy-washy,” said Mr. Thomas (as I address him), now associate publisher of the Community Journal. He knew Harry for 50 years.
“Like the (Frank) Sinatra song, Harry did it ‘his way.’ He was on his feet doing what he loved until the end,” Mr. Thomas continued. “God has received a great soul.”
Community Journal Publisher Patricia O’Flynn Pattillo, who knew Harry for over 30 years, called him the consummate “iconic” Gordon Parks “always viewing the world, critiquing it transferring his vision to the pages of the Community Journal and other outlets. He loved life!
“Harry was the ‘pulse’ of the community. He asked questions, culled opinions and used his camera to portray his observations,” Mrs. Pattillo (hey, she’s the boss) said in a statement. “Harry knew what he had taken, why he had taken it and what the ultimate outcome would be when readers got the newspaper and saw his photographs.”
The Community Journal recently honored Harry for being the visual pulse of our people at its 35th anniversary Gala.
“The shutter of his lens is now closed,” Mrs. Pattillo said. “He will be greatly missed.”
MCJ Associate Publisher and former Editor (my old immediate boss) Mikel Holt called Harry a “photographer extraordinare.” But what Mikel remembered most about Harry was his “endless wisdom.”
“I, like hundreds of others who knew him were privileged to have had the opportunity to sit at his feet and absorb his unique insights and philosophies.”
Lynda Jones, daughter of Jerrel Jones and editor of the Milwaukee Courier said Harry was more than a photographer for her paper. He was a family member.
And as a family member, Jones said the Courier didn’t mind sharing him with other publications like the Community Journal and thousands of families throughout Milwaukee whose events he photographed.
“I personally do not know of a time when he wasn’t a part of the African American press in this city,” Jones said in a statement. “Every other photographer that I’ve worked with has always expressed the greatest respect for Harry, and now know sorrow for losing him.”
Linda Jackson-Conyers, publisher of the Milwaukee Times, said Harry was one of the most resourceful persons she ever knew.
“He was very knowledgeable. He knew a lot about Black Milwaukee and was very positive. As long as I’ve known him, I never knew him to make a negative comment about anyone,” Linda said.
“He saw the positive in everyone and saw everyone as a contributor to our community.”
Remembering Harry as one of the first individuals he met upon arriving in Milwaukee, Community Journal contributor and educator/historian Taki Raton said he was impressed by Harry’s recall of history and his “refined oral passage of our knowledge. He was truly—in my mind—symbolic of an esteemed African Griot.
“He will be truly missed. But I will carry his respectable teachings and prideful model as an elder with me always.”
I spoke to three photographers who worked with Harry or were often covering the same events he was. They remember Harry as a friend first and a teacher second, someone who was always willing to share his knowledge of photography.
Photographer Kim Robinson, whose work (especially his Packer photos) graces the pages of the Community Journal, said Harry was an inspiring mentor and a pioneer in the area of photojournalism. “He had a certain eye for capturing news (with his camera),” Kim said.
“The community events that he covered for so many years told a story about Milwaukee. When he and Mattiebelle Woods (a journalism legend in her own right) worked as a team, there was always coverage of small and large events that touched the reader as well as the person in print.”
Another MCJ photographer, Bill Tennessen, knew Harry for over 30 years through media events they both covered.
“Harry was a nice guy and fun to be around,” Bill said. “I don’t think he ever offended anyone in his life.”
Nationally known photographer Frankie Cole, known for his iconic photos of the Great Circus Parade and photos of actor Ernest Borgnine who would come to Milwaukee for the parade and dress as a clown and entertain the crowd, was a MCJ photographer “back-in-the-day” and knew and worked with Harry.
Like a number of individuals quoted for this tribute, Frankie called Harry the community Gordon Parks. If anyone would know, it is Frankie. Parks was Cole’s idol and inspiration. He even had an opportunity to meet and work with Parks, whose photos are legendary.
Frankie praised Harry and his dedication to photographing the community. “He was unreal, unstoppable; doing all kinds of great things (with his camera). He was a die-hard kind of guy.
“He always showed up for an assignment, and there were a lot of assignments he did I wouldn’t do,” Frankie admitted in an interview. “He just did it. There was nothing he wouldn’t do photography wise.”
Calling Harry an “even-keeled kind of guy,” Frankie said Harry was very creative but would often play down himself, his skills and the famous people he knew and met.
Frankie recalled seeing photos Harry took and being blown away by them, as well as the photos of celebrities and political figures Harry had been photographed with like former President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Yes, Harry had that ability to charm anyone regardless of their status, ethnicity or religious beliefs and political affiliation, young or old.
He made everybody who came in contact with him feel special. And to Harry, everybody was special whether they were in front of his camera or on the bus Harry was riding to another assignment, holding a cup of coffee and regaling someone with his insights on politics, the battle of the sexes, race relations, or how the Brewers were doing, as well as his commentary on life in general.
The community will have an opportunity to return the love and special-ness Harry bestowed on all of us on Friday, Oct 7, 5 p.m. at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, 2620 W. Center St.
Don’t bring your sad face to this “celebration” of Harry’s life. Come with your stories and be ready to laugh and remember our Griot, our own Gordon Parks.