New York: Late 1940s to 1971. A collection of approximately 2,000 photographs and negatives, taken by African-American independent photographer Malcolm Downes Thomas (c. 1900 - c. 1972) from the late 1940s to 1971. Thomas photographed various aspects of New York City street and family scenes in both Manhattan and Harlem, Eastern Long Island landscapes and wildlife and a variety of images taken on various Caribbean islands. The collection also includes over a hundred original photographs and negatives of Bettie Page in a private session taken in 1952.
In its entirety, this collection represents a vision of nature, street scenes, human interest, and erotica as seen from the perspective of an affluent African-American. Thomas focused his photographs of human subjects on his fellow African-Americans, taking not only numerous study series of portraits but also spontaneous shots of everyday life. Children playing, people watching television on the couch, and social gatherings are all represented. New York local events are recorded in this collection, including Wrestling Matches (3/29/53), a New York fire and efforts to extinguish it (1/7/53), African-American’s swimming in the ocean (1953), and outdoor Ice-Skating (12/51).
His cityscape work is not limited to either the narrow or the broad, allowing both views of facades and paint as well as skylines. The nature work follows a similar trend, with close-ups of grasshoppers, rabbits, flowers, and others, followed by islands and landscapes. His early travels included Mexico in 1951/52, St. Thomas in 1953, and Nassau in 1953 where he and his wife participated in various photographic contests and won awards or citations for specific images.
Fashion and erotica are represented as well. Thomas photographed an unknown African-American woman modelling various outfits in various poses (12/20/52). His erotica images include a private Bettie Page session dated 3/8/52 with over a hundred negatives and an unknown East-Asian woman photographed nude on at least three different occasions, 2/16/52, 12/18/53 and 12/19/53.
Thomas was a Navy radar installer and later a Master Electrician. In 1943 he married his third wife Velma Henry who was a registered nurse. Together they took up photography as a hobby, traveling frequently to the Caribbean and Mexico searching for photographic opportunities. They both preferred Leica cameras for their shots. Thomas developed his own work in their kitchen, some birds and flowers were done in color, the rest were black and white. They subsequently built a home in Quoque, Long Island for weekend trips and vacations. They had no children.
According to family lore, during the 1940s Malcolm Thomas became a member of the Pioneer Photography Club, comprised of black friends. There is a story that one of the members (Jerry Tibbs) was on a New York beach and saw this beautiful woman (Bettie Mae Page) who agreed to pose for him and other members of the Pioneer Photography Club.
This story is similar to the one told by Bettie Page herself, that in 1950, while walking along the Coney Island shore, Bettie met NYPD officer Jerry Tibbs. Jerry was an avid photographer and gave Bettie his card. He suggested she’d make a good pin-up model, and in exchange for allowing him to photograph her, he’d help make up her first pin-up portfolio, free of charge. Tibbs introduced Page to other Harlem photographers like the legendary Jamaican nude photographer and jazz musician Cass Carr. Carr hired her as a model in 1952 for his nude “Camera Club Outings” in which amateur and professional cameramen would pay her ten dollars to pose. By 1955 Bettie Page had become the most photographed glamour model in the United States and was the January 1955 Playboy magazine Playmate of the Month
In addition to the photographic archive, the owner of the collection, Malcolm Thomas’ nephew Louis P. Brown, has created an uncorrected oblong folio proof copy of Malcom Thomas’ photographic works titled “Malcolm Thomas: Photographic Memoir” He is interested in assigning the proof and copyright to the publication of the book along with the copyright and physical images of the photographs as an entirety transaction.
Purchase of this collection includes all related rights.