ncent, photographer known for ‘The Shame of a Nation,’ dies at 94

Mr. de Vincent’s book had a foreword by Vice President Hubert  H. Humphrey.
Mr. de Vincent’s book had a foreword by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Kevin Mattingly/Washington Post

WASHINGTON — George de Vincent — a onetime felon, boxer, and aspiring painter who went on to a career in photography, becoming a portraitist of the socially prominent and a chronicler of the impoverished — died March 13 at his home in the District of Columbia.

The cause, at 94, was congestive heart failure.

Mr. de Vincent led a restless and adventurous early life. He was known to tell friends, ‘‘I had been a fast liver, and I don’t mean the organ.’’

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He grew up in Detroit and left school after sixth grade, at which point details of his life become blurry, because of fading memories or by his design.

At various times, he hitchhiked around the country, worked as a driver for a traveling carnival, was a featherweight boxer, and went to jail for bank robbery.

He was headed to Sarasota, Fla., to seek work as a painter for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the early 1950s when he ran out of money in Washington.

He fell into photography.

‘‘I was a painter first, but things weren’t that great,’’ he told The Washington Post years later. ‘‘But I did a pastel portrait for a woman of her son. I did it and traded it for a camera.’’

He developed a strong trade in portraits of Washington-based government leaders, chief executives, and the betrothed. Such clientele became the bread-and-butter of Mr. de Vincent’s professional life. But his ambitions grew elsewhere.

Mr. de Vincent collaborated with journalist, author, and philanthropist Philip M. Stern on ‘‘The Shame of a Nation,’’ a 1965 book that examined the plight of metropolitan slum dwellers and those subsisting in poverty in Appalachia.

He was shaken, he later told a C-SPAN interviewer, by seeing families struggle on cents a day, parents who seemed ignorant of the social service system, and malnourished children who appeared far older than they were.

He said he hoped the book’s pictures, which alternated between the stark and the playful, would distill for readers one concept about the poor: ‘‘We’re warm, alive, gentle, loving human beings, but we’re trapped.’’

The book included a foreword by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and was published about the time President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his ‘‘war on poverty.’’ The book was, in part, a riposte to critics of the Johnson program.

The poor had been the subject of indelible photography since social reformers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis took their cameras to the cities at the turn of the last century. But, Jacob Deschin wrote in The New York Times, ‘‘The Shame of a Nation’’ offered ‘‘enough fresh examples . . . to prove that new and stronger ways still may be found to show that the poor are very much with us.’’

Henry George Vincent was born in Detroit and raised by an uncle. At some point, he started going by his middle name and, as his interest in art deepened, he added the ‘‘de’’ as an homage to Leonardo da Vinci.

Mr. de Vincent also nurtured a long association with Arena Stage in Washington and took pictures for many productions.