Loading...
 

content

David Johnson stays in the zone at Opal Gallery

Retrospective of photographer's work remembers life before hippies in San Francisco's Fillmore district

In 1946, photographer David Johnson moved from Florida to work with Ansel Adams and Minor White at the San Francisco Art Institute (then California School of Fine Art), where he was their first African-American student. Adams told his students to photograph what they knew. For Johnson, this meant documenting life on the streets and in the clubs of San Francisco's Fillmore district, a neighborhood that grew out of the Second Great Migration of Southern blacks to the West Coast during World War II. Ed Spriggs, former director of Atlanta's Hammonds House Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem, has curated a small but eloquent group of Johnson's vintage prints for the Opal Gallery.

Nostalgia permeates Out of the Shadows: Photographs by David Johnson 1946-1963, not for a simpler time, but for a neighborhood and a way of life that ceased to exist in the mid-1960s as hippies took over what had been a cohesive African-American community. The exhibition's centerpiece is the 1956 print titled "Gettin' Down." An African-American couple dances together, their bodies open to the camera. Sporting a cute hat, the woman tilts her head to the music. Her date moves with her, also responding to music we can't hear, but can sense from their bodies' angles and they way they curve toward one another.

As a photographer, Johnson is a master of the zone system developed by Adams and White. The zone system allows the photographer to produce black-and-white photographs with brilliant whites and dark blacks without sacrificing the definition of the tones in between. Johnson executes the technique with finesse, as exemplified by the 1963 photo "3rd Baptist Church Youth Choir," a small print of a troupe of African-American girls clad in white shirts and black skirts, their beautiful faces turned upward, mouths open in song. Johnson shot the image from a low angle, probably kneeling, as if to emphasize the music rising from the singers' lips. As a result, we experience the work from an audience's perspective.

"My Brother Emanuel at 19 years old in San Francisco," from 1947, is one of the exhibition's larger prints and one of Johnson's most compelling compositions. The headshot shows his brother's shoulders and chest against the texture of a tree's bark, lips full, eyes cast down. The portrait captures both a young man lost in a moment of thought and a brother's empathy. "Johnny at Ansel Adam's House" (1946), is another portrait, smaller in scale, of a young African-American man leaning on a metal fence. Johnny, Johnson's fellow student, carries with him a certain cockiness and appears on the verge of asking some provocative question.

Out of the Shadows contains archival images from the beginning of the Civil Rights era in San Francisco: photos of Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson. As important as these images are as historical documents and records of the artist's presence at significant moments, Johnson's elegance and power as a photographer come across most clearly in the more personal images of his friends and family: the streets he walked, the clubs he frequented and the music that moved him. He allows us to see this vibrant world, now only a memory, through his lens.



More By This Writer

Article

Thursday March 10, 2011 10:14 am EST

  • Shara Hughes
  • "These Sweets are too Sweet"

It's difficult to live and work as an artist anywhere. Atlanta especially has its own particular set of pluses and minuses: The city’s a good place to live, but many artists here struggle to maintain their careers. Painter Shara Hughes, who went to high school at Lovett and graduated six years ago from the Rhode Island School of Design, is not...

| more...

Article

Tuesday November 9, 2010 01:29 pm EST

  • Courtesy Sandler Hudson Gallery
  • Mario Petrirena's "Eyes Wide Shut, 2010"

A hundred years ago, Pablo Picasso glued an image of chair caning onto one of his cubist oil paintings and collage was born. Actually, that might be oversimplifying it just a bit. The technique of collaging (the process of making new compositions from existing images cut and pasted together on a surface) has been around...

| more...

Article

Thursday October 7, 2010 09:00 am EDT

  • Courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery
  • "Arcadian Troubles" by Timothy McDowell



“Printmaking camp” is what artist Joanne Mattera called the experience on her blog. This past summer, Atlanta gallerist Marcia Wood invited six of her most seasoned painters she shows to participate in a weeklong printmaking workshop last June at Connecticut College under the guidance of master printer Timothy McDowell....

| more...

Article

Monday August 16, 2010 03:30 pm EDT
Discarded rubber works and photogravures examine the artist's process and place | more...

Article

Thursday July 15, 2010 03:00 pm EDT
The High Museum's Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer is the sleeper photographic exhibition of the summer. A contemporary of Walker Evans and a student of Berenice Abbott, Sekaer was well-known in the 1930s and '40s but slipped through the cracks after his death in 1950, only to be rediscovered in the last few decades. Under its outgoing curator of photography, Julian Cox, the High has... | more...
Search for more by Deanna Sirlin

[Admin link: David Johnson stays in the zone at Opal Gallery]