SHADOWS ON GLASS: A Documentary by DOUGLAS KEISTER

Just another WordPress site

SHADOWS ON GLASS: A Documentary by DOUGLAS KEISTER

in late spring 1965 when I was a junior at Lincoln South High School in Lincoln Nebraska I acquired 285 inch by 7 inch glass negatives from my friend Doug Boylston and his father axel who had found them as a result of a want ad looking for antiques and specifically anything to do with Edison record players I made contact prints of some of the negatives in a makeshift darkroom in my parents basement and discovered one of the prints was of a little girl standing beside an Edison phonograph as I continued making prints I discovered that many of the photographs were of the african-american and immigrant community in Lincoln Nebraska around 1915 the negatives sat until 1999 when a woman in Lincoln who was doing research on the african-american community discovered a box of glass negatives tucked away in a closet that were first thought to be taken by an African American photographer named Earl McWilliams I soon realized that the glass negatives I had were probably taken by the same photographer both the local and national media got a hold of the story and eventually the Smithsonian Institution acquired 60 prints made from the negatives after having the negatives for 36 years the actual name of the photographer was finally revealed in 2001 the lady who had introduced us to mr. Hawley and Abbie Anderson and I were sitting in her living room talking about these photos and we talked about one image of a family of four little girls sitting in front of mother and father and her brother standing behind them and she got up quietly went back to her bedroom came back with a box of family photos prints and hands us a print from that negative it says this is me my father Reverend Albert Albert my mother Millicent Dakotah mr. Johnson took our photos John Johnson took our photo and she goes on to describe John Johnson was an active community photographer her father was a minister at Newman Methodist Church often had Johnson come for church events picnics bazaars and that he was the picture man in the african-american community she kind of gently scoffed at our all we thought maybe her all McWilliams was involved she remembered Earl McWilliams said she didn’t remember him being being photographer and that mr. Johnson was the community photographer we realized this we looked we had we already identified some of the pictures in terms of place in one place that showed up very often was a little house that we could identify as 1310 a Street because there were wide-angle views of it there were views of the porch there was a view of a woman standing right under the address at the front door that said 1310 we can match it up to the city maps and the footprint of the house matched perfectly in 1310 a was the Johnson family home as we looked at the information we learned later as Johnston family home from 1880 to 1953 so a lot it was coming together around the Johnson work it’s not impossible that Johnson working around the community with no studio on front porches open-air in some interiors would have had some help it’s bulky equipments big tripod and Johnson shows up in a number of the photos so we know on certain occasions he probably sets up of you and somebody else releases the shutter but we don’t know who that is having better established the name of the photographer we can now concentrate on who John Johnson was and what he was taking pictures of our search has been an ongoing treasure hunt full of unexpected discoveries John Johnson may have left scant written history but what he did leave us with is an extraordinary

body of work why do not more young colored men and women take up photography as a career the average white photographer does not know how to deal with colored skins and having neither sense of a delicate beauty or tone nor will to learn he makes a horrible botch of portraying them W EB Dubois Johnson’s photos have enabled us to turn the clock back to Lincoln Nebraska in the early years of the 20th century lacking a formal studio John Johnson used the street porches and parks as the studio packing his bulky view camera glass plates and canvas backdrop in a horse and buggy and documented his community in a series of extraordinary images his lack of a formal studio is to our enduring benefit for rather than seeing portraits of people in an artificial studio environment John Johnson’s photos show us the everyday lives of his fellow citizens in their homes where they worked and where they played his gift to us is a marvelous look at the world through his eyes Lincoln Nebraska was established in 1859 then secured the State Capitol in 1867 when his population was a scant 2,400 Souls when the University of Nebraska was chartered in 1869 it added a firm foundation for the city to grow by the end of the 19th century Lincoln had risen to 55,000 and was a lively and growing community by the mid nineteen teens the city was bustling with a building boom Johnson stepped into this vibrant community with a keen eye and a bulky flash played camera with which he’d document almost everything around after the Civil War large numbers of Germans from Russia immigrants moved into an area in southwest Lincoln called the South Bottoms which became known to many as Russian bottoms these hard-working people came from southeastern Russia along the Volga River although they were now Americans they carried on many of the traditions of their old homeland in the south bottoms people speaking German were almost as likely to be found as though speaking English by the latter part of the 19th century other immigrants as well as African Americans many of them from the southern states moved into Russian bottoms both the German Russians and the African Americans suffered from discrimination and Prejudice but because of their mutual struggle for equality they found themselves oddly bound together many of the homes and South bottoms remain much the same a century later making it fairly easy to imagine what they look like in Johnson’s time Johnson posed his neighbors on porches outside their homes and even took photos of window washers which they use to advertise their business by the beginning of the 20th century Lincoln’s african-american community numbered 1500 out of a total population of 55,000 at the time much of America was awash in negative stereotypes of african-americans those negative stereotypes turned into hatred fueled by groups like the Ku Klux Klan Lincoln even briefly had its own Clavin which existed until the mid 1920s but most of the stereotypes of African Americans were more subtle like portraying african-americans as shiftless comical and ignorant however despite the rampant discrimination things were beginning to change and that change was what John Johnson so eloquently captured to combat the negative stereotypes there emerged a social revolution called the new Negro movement which later became better known as the Harlem Renaissance much of the credit for the birth of a new Negro movement goes to reformers like W EB

dois Alain Locke and intellectuals and artists in big cities but in fact it was a nationwide movement and nowhere was the spirit of equality and casting off negative stereotypes better depicted than in Lincoln Nebraska Aaron Douglas one of the artists most cited as proponents of the new Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance lived and was educated in Lincoln Nebraska he had received his art education at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and was here late teens graduated in a thing 1921 with a bachelor in fine arts sometimes when you read about Aaron Douglas it’s sounds like he somehow escaped Kansas and got to New York City and there drank the water and became a genius he was a train he was a academic artist with his education high school in Kansas and then and as collegiate years were at University of nebraska-lincoln at the very time Johnson is taking his photos and I can’t prove it for a legal certainty but I can identify in some of the Johnson group shots of young people in park setting looks like a Sunday afternoon church group and I think I can spot in two of the images young Aaron Douglas and we have his high school graduation picture we have his college graduation pictures we know the man’s face at that point in his youth and I think Aaron Douglas is in John Johnston’s pictures I I’m always careful to say I don’t think John Johnson Mader and Douglas the artist he became but I do think his education here in Nebraska was a key factor in becoming an artist he became and both of these men are in the arts in the visual arts at the same moment in the small community of Lincoln Nebraska in the late teens early 20s I think what it really tells us is the new Negro movement was nationwide these aren’t wealthy middle-class or upper-class people in occupation or in material goods and the presentation of the enormous dignity that is apparent in so many of the pictures is something that the subject and Johnson together are producing as the true image that they want to portray and that is new Negro movement that that we’ve got a lovely picture of two pictures of a woman standing out of front porch or sitting reading a book we were able to identify as Mamie Griffin her house is a little tiny house on a dirt street the junkyard next to it and this woman is beautifully dressed holds a book proudly so you you know she’s a reader spectacular image and attitude captured in these pictures and the work she can obtain dignified work but menial work she’s a cook you know in the community it isn’t what you look at this picture and say I’m pretty sure I see a cook here this is a lady dressed to the nines and just spectacular views half this big there ain’t nothing I can do oh nothing I can say there folks don’t create a sound me but I’m gonna do just as I want to anyway I don’t care what people say if I should take a notion to jump into the ocean it ain’t nobody’s business if I do if I go to church on Sunday then cabaret all day Monday it ain’t nobody’s business

give my friend ain’t got no money and I say we’ll take all of mine honey you ain’t nobody’s prisoner see I do oh no if I give here my last nickel and it leaves me in a pickle it ain’t nobody’s business if I do if I you Joe Johnson didn’t shy away from tough subjects an area near Lincoln’s train station was known as the burnt district here lived the ultra poor and Lincoln’s prostitutes but Johnson used his lens to look past their circumstances and into their soul you there is still much to learn about the people and locations in John Johnson’s photographs each discovery adds another piece to a jigsaw puzzle without a complete picture on the box but what we do know is that the more pieces we find the more marvelous the picture of John Johnson’s world looks the core of Johnson’s images are his evocative portraits from them spins a rich tapestry of hope and promise

what we have seen thanks to John Johnson’s insightful eye is not just the flowering of a segment of a community but the broad texture of a diverse and growing city in America’s heartland while it is true that the full flowering of the new Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance occurred in large cities it was fueled and supported by what came from America’s heart many of the people and locations in Johnson’s images remain a mystery but what is not a mystery is that John Johnson will now take his place among America’s great early twentieth-century photographers and it is all thanks to a father and his son who found a shadowy Glass negative of a little girl standing next to a wind-up Edison phonograph and their friend just up the street who was experimenting with photography in his parents basement in Lincoln Nebraska but our story isn’t over after Johnson’s death in 1953 his friends in the community distributed the photos that were in his house then in 1955 the house and its outbuilding were torn down removing any hope of finding more prints in his basement attic or tucked away in closets but many of his photographs are out in the world waiting to be discovered and identified they are in family albums bins and antique stores and forgotten trunks in grandma’s basement some are even on bureau tops waiting for someone to say that’s my grandmother when she was a young woman I’ve always wondered who took that it’s incredible you

you