Elise Beatrice Forrest was born February 8, 1891, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her mother, Elvira Moorer, emphasized the importance of education and her father, Augustus Forrest, was an accountant. Elise worked diligently in school. She learned to value education which laid the foundation for her future work experience.
Upon graduating high school, Forrest attended the local Avery Normal Institute. She graduated in 1910. From there, she began teaching in a rural school in South Carolina. She held that position for a short while.
In 1913, Forrest met a painter and her future husband, Edwin Harleston. She was encouraged by Harleston to pursue photography. In 1919, she moved to New York City where she enrolled in the E. Brunel School of Photography. She was the only Black woman to attend the school at that time. From there, she continued her education at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
After working with C. M. Battey at the Tuskegee Institute, Forrest challenged racism with her work. She produced images that reflected the “New Negro” of the time. In 1920, she married Edwin Harleston.
Shortly thereafter, the Harlestons established a joint studio and exhibition space. Their studio operated from 1922 to 1932. Elise would take pictures of the subjects that Edwin would later paint. Edwin’s painting, A Colored Grand Army Man, went on to receive critical acclaim but Elise’s contribution was often omitted.
During the decade that their joint studio operated, the Harlestons raised their nieces. Elise’s sister, Marie, married Edwin’s brother, Robert, prior to Elise and Edwin’s marriage. Marie died of tuberculosis four months after Elise and Edwin married. Edwin’s brother died from Tuberculosis years later as well. After kissing his father, Edwin contracted pneumonia and died in 1931.
After Edwin died, Elise closed their studio. Within a year, she had remarried to a teacher named John J. Wheeler but kept the name Harleston. She ultimately moved to Southern California. There, Elise Forrest Harleston died of a brain aneurysm in 1970. She was 79 years old.
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