» Walter Boags: History Through Portraits

October 31, 2022
News & Notes, Archive Spotlight, Archival Projects

Walter N. Boags

From 1949 to the late 1970s, Walter N. Boags (1917-1997) owned and operated Boags Modern Arts Photography Studio, one of the few African American photography studios in Charleston, South Carolina. During the 1980s, Boags continued to operate as a freelance photographer.

The collection consists mostly of black-and-white and color negatives taken by Walter Boags from the 1950s through the 1970s. Boags’ work focused on African Americans, African American groups, and architecture related to African American education, worship, and business in the Charleston area. Studio portraits include portraits of individuals and families, school dance portraits, and graduation cap-and-gown portraits. A small but interesting portion of the photos were shot outside of the studio – in homes, at gatherings, and in churches. These give insight into how life was lived in Charleston during the mid-century. The portraits are organized by decade, and then alphabetically. An information card is included with each person’s portraits, which is often the original record from the Boags Studio. This record will sometimes include a name, address, and phone number for the person who paid for the portraits – giving insight into residential areas of the time.

There are five themes to the digitized portion of the collection: portraits, marching bands and majorettes, school dances and queens, fashion, and those outside of the studio photographs.


The collection includes portraits of individuals, of children, of families, and of couples. Some of the portraits are typical smiling faces, while others show a bit of personality or show something about the subject’s life or interests. Some photos even appear to be modeling or acting portfolio shots, with unique poses, cowboy outfits, fancy dresses, or several costume changes within one photo session. Due to the proximity of the Charleston Naval Base and Charleston Air Force Base, there are many portraits of members of the armed services who were temporarily stationed here.

Marching Bands and Majorettes

Over the decades, many members of local high school marching bands came to the studio for portraits. Most of them are from Burke High School, but students from Bonds-Wilson and C.A. Brown high schools are also photographed. Learn more about Burke High School through this exhibit.

These are all individual portraits and often show students holding instruments or show majorettes in various poses, sometimes with batons and sometimes with the faux rifles that they used while performing. It’s interesting with these portraits to note the lack of changes. While majorettes don’t make an appearance in the collection until the late 1960s and 1970s, band uniforms don’t change much with the decades (and still look very similar today).

School Dances and Queens

School dances make up at least half of the portraits shot during the 1950s, and the majority of them are couple photos. Some are in the studio, while others were shot on site – using one of Boags’s backgrounds. Not all of these indicate the high school or event where they were shot, but often include the name of the male pictured and his contact information – presumably because the males were the ones who paid for the pictures. In addition to the couple photos, there are some portraits of high school girls who were elected queens of their school or of their class, including girls from Gresham Meggett High School, Burke High School, Bonds-Wilson High School, and the Simonton School.


You can’t take a collection that spans the 1950s through to the 1970s without talking about the evolution of fashion during those decades. The move from black and white to color photography highlights the move from mostly solid colors of the 1950s to bold patterns of the 1970s.

Outside of the Studio (in homes, at debutante balls, at gatherings, in churches)

While most of the portraits are taken in the studio, there are some that show how life was lived in the real world. There are family portraits taken inside the family home, similar to a family photo shoot of today. There are also portraits and photos taken at events, like a baptism ceremony in a church, debutante balls, anniversary parties, and outdoor portraits of Boags’s own family.

BUILDING CLOSURES: We will be CLOSED on Thursday, July 4th.

MUSEUM TOURS: We offer self-guided tours Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1030AM-12PM and 2PM-330PM. Large groups limited 25 people or less per time slot.

ARCHIVES: Researchers must have a consultation BEFORE making a research appointment. Contact us in advance for further assistance