Florida, where David Johnson was raised in the 1930s and early '40s, was a state where lynchings occurred with regularity, and where nearly everyone, strangers included, referred to Johnson as "a Negro." Johnson himself used the term when, in 1946, he wrote a letter to Ansel Adams and asked to attend Adams' first-ever photography class at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Johnson wanted badly to leave Florida and to study in San Francisco. He'd read a notice about Adams' class in the back of a photography magazine, but had no idea that Adams was considered one of America's greatest photographers.
"I didn't know anything about Ansel Adams," says Johnson now. "What really caught my eye was 'Photography in San Francisco.' I'd served in the Navy in San Francisco for a short time, and I admired the city. And in that day, it was highly unlikely that I was going to get into a photography school in the South. So I wrote a letter to Ansel Adams, and I put it out front: 'I'm a Negro.' I was in a segregated environment, and I wasn't going to come 3,000 miles and find out they didn't want me. But Ansel said, 'That doesn't matter, Mr. Johnson. You'd be welcome in this school just like anyone else.'"
And so it was that Johnson became Adams' first African-American photography student. And so it was that Johnson, at age 19, began taking images of life in the Fillmore District, San Francisco's most prominent black neighborhood, that showed everyday occurrences like commuters taking streetcars and kids playing with friends. Johnson adopted the neighborhood, and the neighborhood adopted Johnson. Within a few years, Johnson opened a photo studio at 1818 Divisadero St., just blocks from the Fillmore's busiest intersection, and began photographing the area for San Francisco's African-American newspaper, the Sun Reporter. His modus operandi: Photograph black people "with dignity and respect" — an ethos that wasn't always followed by white photographers in Florida and other Southern states.
In the early 20th century, images of lynched blacks frequently appeared in popular Southern newspapers, helping define public perception of how blacks lived and died. A century earlier, in a comment that could be applied to photography, former slave Frederick Douglass said that white portraitists were so steeped in racial stereotyping that they were incapable of objectively portraying black Americans. In the 1940s, Johnson was part of a generation of African-American photographers and filmmakers (including Gordon Parks, Allen E. Cole, Charles "Teenie" Harris, and Oscar Micheaux) who tried changing the way blacks were perceived in America. For Johnson, San Francisco — with its new influx of black residents from the American South — was an ideal place to start his photographic career. His new retrospective, "David Johnson: Photographer of the Fillmore," is a chance to look back on that career, which experienced a renaissance a decade ago when KQED-TV made a documentary on the Fillmore that centered around Johnson's images.
At age 88, Johnson is still taking images worthy of publication (though now it's with a mobile phone). Johnson's Fillmore photos from the '40s and '50s pay tribute to a time when a substantial black middle class thrived in the center of San Francisco, and when the area was known as "the Harlem of the West."
"What was before me was a group of people I'd gotten to know and they became my friends and ultimately they became my subjects," Johnson says. "My race was a positive. I was a black kid from Jacksonville, Florida, who wanted to study photography. I made that journey with limited resources. I came to a dream spot. It was almost like it was made for me."
The photos are beautiful and bittersweet. The beauty is there in the spontaneous moments that Johnson captured so movingly, as in the jazz bassist Vernon Alley performing in a club while lying on his back, and in the black boy walking down the street with a wagon crammed with an American flag and a younger boy thrilled at the ride. The beauty is there in the composition and crisp black-and-white tones, typified by Johnson's 1947 overhead image of the corner of Fillmore and Post streets, where the horizontal shapes of a streetcar and autos parallel the scene's vertical pedestrians. (Johnson climbed scaffolding to get this photo.) As for the bittersweet: Where are these scenes of the black middle class today in San Francisco? When Johnson's photographic memoir, A Dream Begun So Long Ago, was published last year, he gave a well-attended talk at Marcus Books, the Fillmore Street establishment that was the oldest black bookstore in the United States and was on the same block where Johnson took his 1947 image of Post and Fillmore. Earlier this year, the building's owners evicted Marcus Books.
Still, a proud history comes alive in Johnson's images, and Johnson himself embodies the wherewithal it takes to survive as a professional photographer. Though he had steady business in San Francisco after leaving the California School of Fine Arts (which is now the San Francisco Art Institute), Johnson worked the late-night shift as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service to cover all his expenses. Eventually, he left full-time photography for a series of jobs that included being an organizer for the Urban League, a civil rights organization. Johnson moved back to Florida for a while, then returned to the Bay Area, where he now lives in the Marin County city of Greenbrae.
At the opening reception for "David Johnson: Photographer of the Fillmore," Johnson and the exhibit's organizers told his story and shared slides of his life with a gallery audience that was standing-room only. Johnson's stepdaughter read a certificate of honor from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee that praised Johnson for his "significant contributions." A stream of people shook Johnson's hand, and he received multiple rounds of sustained applause.
Johnson started his career by learning from a master photographer, and from the steady stream of other acclaimed image-makers who taught at the school, including Lisette Model and Dorothea Lange. Like Adams' celebrated photos of Yosemite and Lange's shots of Depression-era California, Johnson's photos of the Fillmore are a timeless portrait of America. Johnson was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.