Phillip A. Harrington was born in 1920 and grew up in Holland, Michigan. He developed an interest in photography at an early age, joining the high school camera club at 16. At the age of 19, Harrington moved to New York City to study at the Clarence. H. White school of photography, a prestigious institution with graduates such as Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Laura Gilpin, and Ralph Steiner. Harrington studied under Clarence White, Jr., who described Harrington as being among the school’s best students.
In 1942, Harrington joined the Merchant Marine in order to become a ship’s photographer, on board the S.S. North American. From 1942 to 1944, he worked for several newspapers such as the Akron Beacon-Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. In 1945 he became Director of Photography for the Wisconsin State Journal, and in 1946 switched to the Minneapolis Tribune where, again as director, he developed a daily “picture story” feature. The Tribune was part of the Cowles Communications network, and by 1949 Harrington transitioned to Look Magazine, the flagship publication owned by Cowles.
At Look Magazine, Harrington worked on-and-off as a staff photographer, at various times switching to work for National Geographic while still freelancing for Look. After Look closed in 1971, Harrington taught photography at Ohio University, worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer, and did a substantial amount of freelance work. He was close friends with photographer Roman Vishniac, with whom he shared a love of the microscope and together they helped develop the new field of photomicrography. Harrington pioneered several techniques of photomicrography, which he shared with Vishniac and others at the New York Microscopical Society.
Among the notable subjects of Harrington’s lens were various 20th century presidents, kings, actors, and artists. His travels took him around the globe at a time when Americans seldom traveled internationally. In 1956 the editors at Look Magazine stated that Harrington traveled 15,000 miles a year on assignment.
Phillip Harrington, aboard
the S.S. North American, 1942
In 1956, he photographed Elvis Presley over the course of several days (including three concert venues, and numerous photos at the Presley home). Harrington recounted that while on the road with Presley, a young man in the entourage (probably Gene Smith) served as an intermediary for Elvis, telling specific female fans that Elvis would like to see them privately that evening. Another story that Harrington loved to tell involved being at the Presley home one morning and sitting with neighbor Dan Shackleford while Elvis prepared for being photographed. Harrington asked where Elvis was, to which Shackleford pronounced that “Elvis in the closet with his mother”. Harrington opened the door and, according to his telling of the story, Elvis and his mother Gladys were in the closet in their underwear. Why they were in the closet together is anyone’s guess. I asked my father several times over the years to recount this story, and the details never changed, and for this reason I suspect it is accurate. It may be that Elvis and Gladys merely wanted a brief moment to discuss something of importance in privacy. As a photographer, Phillip Harrington respected the privacy his photographic subjects, which is rare these days. Racy photos of this type, with a salacious headline, had the potential to damage or end Elvis’s career. Perhaps we are fortunate that Harrington closed the closet door without snapping any photos.
Later that same year, Harrington traveled to Moscow for a story on life in Russia, where he teamed up with Edmund Stevens, a seasoned reporter with expertise on the Soviet Union. After several weeks in Russia, he and Stevens crossed the border to China, in violation of the US State Department ban on journalists traveling to Communist China. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened to revoke Harrington’s passport, or even imprison him, on his return to the USA. This prompted a controversy in the United States because the actions of the State Department were threatening the freedom of the press. Harrington remained in China despite repeated cables from the U.S. State Department demanding his return. The photographs he shot there are among his best, and the reporting won Harrington and Stevens the prestigious George Polk award for journalism, and another by the Overseas Press Club. While in China, Harrington met with artists, including Qi Baishi, as well as with Premier Zhao Enlai. Young people in China at that time were very interested in learning of the West, and they even asked Harrington about Elvis Presley, who he said was a “flash in the pan”. Thankfully, this prediction turned out to be wrong.
Harrington continued photographing people throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, focusing primarily on the jazz scene in New York City. His other passion, photomicrography, continued to be a major interest, particularly after Harrington moved to the Catskills region of New York State, where he lived in the small town of Fleischmanns. Phillip Harrington passed away at the age of 88, in 2009, taking with him untold stories of his adventures. Phillip Harrington never promoted himself, and as a result most of his photographs have languished until now. We (the Harrington family) hope you enjoy these images.
Phil and Evan Harrington, circa 1996