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.