Since the very first photograph was taken in 1826, the practice of photography as we know it has developed rapidly. That first image, known as “View from the Window at Le Gras,” required several days of exposure time! Now, nearly 200 years later, most of us carry cameras in our pockets, allowing us to capture any moment instantly.
But, before the age of smart phones and digital cameras, people relied heavily on professional photographers to document anything and everything, from special events to daily life. Whether they realized it or not, they were also capturing history.
Some photographers even made history themselves. Edgar Bradley (E.B.) Mitchell was only 18 years old when he bought his first camera for $2. Mitchell likely expected to document the places he went while serving in the Navy, and maybe pick up a fun hobby along the way. But his hobby came back to Orlando with him and turned into a successful career.
After his return, Mitchell took at-home classes with the American School of Photography to perfect his craft and quickly became well known in his neighborhood of Parramore and beyond. If there was an event, large or small, you could count on seeing Mitchell there behind his camera lens.
Mitchell worked in a number of different capacities before being listed as a photographer in the 1948 Orlando City Directory. Of the 17 photographers listed in the classifieds, Mitchell was one of only two African-Americans. For over 10 years, he operated a studio out of his home on Division Street with the help of his wife, Dorothy A. Mitchell. In 1959, Mitchell moved his business to 571 W. Church St. and expanded his services to include a camera shop.
Following two more studio relocations, he closed his business in 1963. Mitchell then became the first African American in a press role at the Orlando Sentinel. His assignment was to take pictures for the Sentinel’s “Negro edition,” or “pink sheets,” the section of the newspaper printed on pink paper containing news about Orlando’s black community.
When the Sentinel eliminated the pink sheets in the late 1960s, Mitchell continued working as a press photographer for the main edition. Mitchell earned the respect of his colleagues through his knowledge of photography. He once taught a workshop for other staff photographers to help them achieve more accurate depictions of skin tones when photographing people of color.
For 14 years, many photos in the newspaper bore the credit line “Sentinel Star Photo by E.B. Mitchell,” until he retired after having a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed. But Mitchell continued to document the world through his camera lens well into retirement and, in 1978, he was awarded an honorary lifetime membership by the Professional Photographers Association of Central Florida.
A second stroke left Mitchell blind. When he passed away in 1988, the Sentinel honored his contributions to the Central Florida community by creating a photojournalism scholarship in his name. Throughout his career, E.B. Mitchell played a significant role in documenting the everyday life of Central Florida’s black community.
Melissa Procko is the Research Librarian at the Orange County Regional History Center.