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UH Libraries Special Collections Acquires Ben DeSoto Papers

Performing & Visual Arts

The University of Houston Libraries Special Collections is proud to announce its acquisition of the Ben DeSoto Papers. Ben DeSoto is a Houston native with a photography career spanning over three decades, and his collection documents Houston’s art, history, and culture.

The Ben DeSoto Papers document the Houston art scene and capture the images of hundreds of Houston’s visual artists. DeSoto’s collection also contains photos of hundreds of musicians and performances at many now-defunct Houston venues, including Mary Jane’s, The Axiom, and The Island. The latter venue is the subject of DeSoto’s documentary Night at the Island, which is currently in production. DeSoto describes The Island as

. . . the first venue in Houston where Punk Rock music was heard . . . From 1978 to 1982, the place was a home away from home for many and part of underground scene. Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, Big Boys, The Dicks shared the stage with locals Mydolls, Judys, AK 47, The Hates, and many others.

DeSoto’s collection contains images from these and many other musicians along with photographs of the Houston street skaters Urban Animals, many of which were exhibited at the Glassel and the Houston Center for Photography in the late 1980’s, and the Menil in 1998.  Additionally, the collection contains personal and family documents.

Judy Pruitt at 18 years old, under the Pierce Elevated, Christmas week 1988.

Judy Pruitt at 18 years old, under the Pierce Elevated, Christmas week 1988. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

Perhaps most importantly, the Ben DeSoto Papers document DeSoto’s life’s work the Understanding Poverty Project in which he allows us into the daily lives of Houston’s homeless and poor. DeSoto explains that a chance encounter with Judy Pruitt in 1988 led to a decades-long collaboration in “sharing to the public an understanding of underlying causes of chronic homelessness.” Desoto also documented Ben White’s life for over thirty years. Like Pruitt, White battled the cycles of homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty. What is unique to this project is that DeSoto documents the experiences and struggles of Pruitt, White, and their families—over such an extended period of time. Currently, DeSoto is working on Quiet Storms of Reform–what he calls a “poverty solutions documentary film.”

DeSoto received numerous awards during his long career at the Houston Post, including the

  • Fuji Fine Arts Award for Contributions to Society (1987)
  • National Headliners, Outstanding Feature Photography (1989)
  • Inter American Press Association, First in Photography (1990)
  • Texas Correction Association Award for Media Excellence for “Documenting the Lives of Children and Families at Risk” (1991)
Ben White was born April 27, 1957, and grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward (Freedman’s Town), Fifth Ward, and Sunny Side, all working-poor black neighborhoods.

Ben White was born April 27, 1957, and grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward (Freedman’s Town), Fifth Ward, and Sunny Side, all working-poor black neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

In 2000 Desoto was awarded for his work with the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, Inc.

However, it is the recognition he has received for his more creative work, after his newspaper career, that he most values. A selection of his later awards follows:

  • Houston Press, Best Art Exhibit and Best Photographer in Houston award from the for his exhibition His Understanding Poverty at City Hall (2009)
  • Houston Arts Alliance grant for The Significance of Making Art
  • “100 Creative People in Houston,” Houston Press (2011)
  • UNESCO Bioethics Global Arts Competition for his project My Mother’s Dying, which to date has exhibited in Hong Kong, Houston, New York City, Mexico City, and Rome (2013)
  • Top Ten Photographers listings: Houston Press, Free Press Houston, Green Mountain Express (2014)

In 2009, the office of Mayor Bill White commissioned City Workers of a Working City, Houston, Texas, which was installed on the third floor of City Hall. The Significance of Making Art was included in the 2009 No Zoning Show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and at the Artery (2010).

During his internship at the Houston Post the summer of 1980, Desoto particularly enjoyed his assignment taking photographs at The Island, Houston’s first punk rock venue.

During his internship at the Houston Post the summer of 1980, Desoto particularly enjoyed his assignment taking photographs at The Island, Houston’s first punk rock venue. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

DeSoto’s collection at UH Special Collections totals approximately 44 linear feet, and most materials date from the 1980s through 2016. Five linear feet of the collection came to UH Special Collections organized by Patricia Hernandez of Studio One through the CALL project. Included in this portion are photographs and negatives documenting Houston artists and art events as well as photographs of bands and musicians, primarily at Houston venues. While most of Desoto’s later work has been donated to UH Special Collections, his journalistic work for the Houston Post, as well as a majority of hip hop and materials related to Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, have been donated to the African American Library at the Gregory School.

The collection is currently being processed and a finding aid is not yet available publicly. However, arrangements to use materials in the collection can be made by contacting Performing and Visual Arts curator Mary Manning at mmmanning@uh.edu.

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