The historical depiction of African Americans is usually about suffering," declares Rick Moss, chief curator of the African American Museum at Oakland. "Leisure is often omitted." What makes the AAMLO's new traveling photography show, Recovered Views: African-American Portraits, 1912-1925, so rare and remarkable is that it's full of scenes of ordinary life, including people just relaxing and enjoying themselves. The place where they're relaxing is Lincoln, Nebraska, in the early years of the 20th century, a time when racial tensions were evidently high.
The photos were taken by John Johnson, a black photographer and son of a Civil War veteran. He rode through Nebraska in a horse-drawn wagon shooting formal, and not so formal, portraits such as Costumed Girls with Cards and Booze Bottle, c. 1915 (above). Johnson's photos were discovered as glass plate negatives in a family collection in the 1990s; the current show of forty images, curated by the Nebraska State Historical Society, is made up of digitally printed, high-resolution scans of those original prints and negatives. They're recognizable-yet-eerie glimpses into an unfamiliar time almost a hundred years ago. "When viewers look at these photos, they're asking, 'What part of me can I find in these faces?'" Moss reckons.
Itinerant photographer Johnson was helping to document African-American life, whether he intended to or not. Rather than depicting politicians or other dignitaries, his photos "leave for the historical record the daily lives of everyday people," in Moss' words, "much the same as photographer E.F. Joseph did in Oakland." According to Moss, Johnson came to photography after working in the post office and driving a delivery wagon ("the kinds of jobs that were available to African Americans in those days"). When he stopped taking photos in 1925, that window was closed, at least in Lincoln.
"Recovered Views" opens Saturday and runs through October 25 at the museum, 659 14th St., Oakland, 510-637-0200. On September 25, Pomona James, a contemporary of many of the people in Johnson's pictures and a former Oakland resident, speaks at the museum. Info: OaklandLibrary.org
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