Profile: Elise Forrest Harleston (1891-1970)

Elise Forrest Harleston was an early female African-American photographer in South Carolina.


Elise Beatrice Forrest was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 8, 1891, to Elvira Moorer and Augustus Forrest, an accountant. She attended the local Avery Normal Institute, graduating in 1910. She went on to teach in a rural school.

In 1913, she met painter Edwin Harleston and they later became engaged. With Harleston’s encouragement and financial support, Forrest traveled to New York City to enroll in the E. Brunel School of Photography in 1919. She was the only female of color attending the school and learned many photographic techniques from her German teachers. After graduation, she continued her studies at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she worked under C. M. Battey. Under his tutelage, Elise became a part of the artistic community that challenged racist stereotypes of African Americans, and her works reflected the image of the “New Negro”.

She married Edwin in 1920 (four years after her sister, Marie, had married his brother, Robert) and they opened a joint studio and exhibition space at 118 Calhoun Street in Charleston that lasted from 1922 to 1932.There she produced and sold a series of portraits of Charleston’s black street vendors. She also supported Edwin’s work by taking photographs of the people he intended to paint, such as the subject of his prize-winning drawing A Colored Grand Army ManWhile his paintings went on to garner critical acclaim, the contributions of his wife were rarely mentioned.

Harleston and Edwin raised their niece Edwina “Gussie” Harleston Whitlock, who Edwin and his brother had been bringing up since she was two (Marie and Robert suffering from tuberculosis) and Marie died four months after Elise and Edwin married. They also took in Doris,

After kissing his deathly ill father, Edwin Harleston died of pneumonia in 1931. Elise closed her studio and remarried within a year, to schoolteacher John J. Wheeler. She moved to Baltimore, then to Chicago, and then to Southern California, where she remained until her death from a brain aneurysm in 1970. According to her great-niece, Edwina’s daughter Mae Whitlock Gentry, she never spoke of her relationship with Edwin or her work as a photographer.

After Harleston’s death in 1970, her family found Edwin’s letters and a cache of almost two dozen glass plate negatives that she had saved. Many of her papers are now held by Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library.

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