NEW YORK — Don Hogan Charles, who was the first black photographer to be hired by The New York Times and who drew acclaim for his evocative shots of the civil rights movement and everyday life in New York, died Dec. 15 in East Harlem. He was 79.
His niece Cherylann O’Garro, who announced the death, said his family did not yet know the cause.
In more than four decades at the Times, Mr. Charles photographed a wide range of subjects, from local hangouts to celebrities to fashion to the United Nations. But he might be best remembered for the work that earned him early acclaim: his photographs of key moments and figures of the civil rights era.
In 1964, he took a now-famous photograph, for Ebony magazine, of Malcolm X holding a rifle as he peered out of the window of his Queens home. In 1968, for The Times, he photographed Coretta Scott King, her gaze fixed in the distance, at the funeral of her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Charles resisted being racially pigeonholed but also considered it a duty to cover the movement, said Chester Higgins, who joined the Times in 1975 as one of its few other black photographers.
“He felt that his responsibility was to get the story right,” Higgins said.
Even in New York, historically black neighborhoods like Harlem, where Mr. Charles lived, were often covered with little nuance, said James Estrin, a longtime staff photographer for the Times and an editor of the photojournalism blog the Lens. But Mr. Charles, through his photography, provided readers a fuller portrait of life throughout those parts of the city, Estrin said.
Exacting and deeply private, Mr. Charles came off as standoffish to some. But to others, especially many women, he was a supportive mentor.
“He’s going to give you the bear attitude, but if you look past that he was something else,” said Michelle Agins, who met Mr. Charles while she was a freelance photographer in Chicago and he was working in the Times’ bureau there.
The two reconnected when she joined the Times as a staff photographer in 1989.
“When you’re a new kid at The New York Times and you needed a big brother, he was all of that,” she said. “He was definitely the guy to have on your team. He wouldn’t let other people bully you.”