Developing history

Century-old negatives in local photographer’s collection find home in new national African American museum

Two images—of a young woman reading a book and a little girl with an Edison phonograph (below)— from two of John Johnson’s century-old glass plate negatives.

Two images—of a young woman reading a book and a little girl with an Edison phonograph (below)— from two of John Johnson’s century-old glass plate negatives.

Photos by John Johnson from the Douglas Keister Collection

A nation’s story
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Photographers dream of having their work on exhibit in a major museum. Doug Keister is experiencing that thrill—at one of the Smithsonians no less—even if the prints he made for the gallery walls aren’t of his own images.

Keister, a longtime Chicoan raised in the Midwest, owns 280 negatives from John Johnson, a black photographer who chronicled life in his Lincoln, Neb., neighborhood between 1910 and 1925. That period coincided with the New Negro Movement: a time of cultural and educational growth in black communities, such as the Harlem Renaissance in New York City.

Photographs documenting this era are so rare that Keister’s set has been declared a historical treasure in Nebraska and now has a place in the Smithsonian. The National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened Sept. 24, requested 60 of the photos for its permanent collection. Keister made prints and digital copies. Four grand-opening installations incorporate Johnson’s images.

Keister says his photo set “illuminates an unknown chapter in American history. People tend to think of African-American history as the Civil War and the civil rights movement. There’s 100 years between that!”

Speaking with the CN&R a few days before President Obama dedicated the museum, Keister foreshadowed remarks about contemporary relevance and the importance of viewing exhibits such as the Johnson photographs.

“With what we see on TV—the protests and the riots and the shootings—we don’t see ennobling images,” said Keister, who’s white. “We do occasionally, with certain leaders, but they get squashed by all this other stuff.

“This whole Black Lives Matter [message], these pictures are so good at showing that.”

Keister acquired Johnson’s work by happenstance. In 1965, when he was a teenager working in a darkroom, a friend and the friend’s father bought glass negatives from a farmer who told them the stack contained an image of an Edison phonograph, which the father collected. Unwilling to sort through the pile, they sold the set to Keister for $10, taking a $5 loss.

Appreciating the images, Keister made prints and sold them for $1 or $2 apiece.

“My first sales as a photographer were pictures taken by somebody else,” he observed, laughing.

If not for this sentimental tie, he might not have kept them when, in young adulthood, he moved to California.

The glass negatives—standard stock for the time—remained in storage for 35 years until he received a newspaper clipping by mail from his mother in 1999 detailing the discovery of 36 glass negatives in the closet of a black woman’s home in Lincoln. Keister felt it “looked like the same ‘eye’” as his collection, and the Nebraska State Historical Society concurred. Since then, he and the society’s Edward Zimmer have identified not only the photographer, Johnson, but also many of the photos’ subjects—and continue that effort.

The collection’s path to the Smithsonian was also serendipitous. In 1999, Keister contacted Lonnie Bunch at the National Museum of American History, who Keister says was the first person to recognize the photographs’ significance. Bunch left the Smithsonian but then returned as the inaugural director of the African American History & Culture Museum.

That initial outreach proved Keister’s “foot in the door” of the Smithsonian.

“I’m so lucky my mother sent me that article,” Keister said. “These aren’t just snapshots; they’re documents … there’s nothing like them anywhere.”