Photographer of the Fillmore
How David Johnson became the premier chronicler of mid-century African-American life in San Francisco, with help from Ansel Adams
To many people, mention of “the Fillmore” conjures the San Francisco dance emporium where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix held sway during the late 1960s. Few realize that just a few years earlier, in the 1940s and ‘50s, the term applied to an entire district, one that was “a swinging, integrated, and hopping neighborhood dotted with restaurants, pool halls, theaters and shops—many minority-owned and boasting more than two dozen active nightclubs and music joints within its one square mile.”
Those words are from Harlem of the West, a 2006 book about the Fillmore District by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts. Using rare photos from the era, many of them only recently discovered, the authors have summoned the spirit of a remarkable San Francisco neighborhood before it fell victim to the redevelopment wrecking ball in the 1960s.
Billie Holiday sang at the Champagne Supper Club. Dexter Gordon hung out at Bop City. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Lionel Hampton all showed up to play. It was quite a scene—and then it disappeared altogether.
A good number of the photos in Harlem of the West were taken by an African-American man named David Johnson. He then owned a small studio on Fillmore Street, and spent much of his time documenting life in the neighborhood. He loved jazz music, too, and often took his camera into the clubs to shoot pictures of the musicians and their audiences.
Johnson also has the distinction of being the first black student of the legendary photographer Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he was particularly mentored by illustrious photographers Ruth Bernard and Minor White.
One of Johnson’s fellow students was Ira Latour, the art-history professor emeritus at Chico State University whose exhibit, Portaiture and Place, recently showed at the 1078 Gallery. Thanks to Latour’s efforts, and those of Tom Patton, director of Chico State’s photography program, the Humanities Center Gallery has mounted an exhibition of nearly 40 of the thousands of pictures Johnson has taken over more than 50 years.
Johnson visited Chico on Thursday (Dec. 4) to attend and speak at the gallery reception in his honor. More than 50 people listened raptly as the slight, sprightly 82-year-old told the story of his extraordinary life.
David Johnson won his first camera in a contest. The year was 1938, and he was 12 years old. It wasn’t much of a camera, he said, but it worked, and he loved it.
Photography was an unusual hobby for a black boy growing up in Jacksonville, Fla.—or any black boy, for that matter. For Johnson, it proved to be a pathway to a life he couldn’t have imagined, thanks to the almost chance connection he later made with Ansel Adams.
Johnson was in high school when he first learned that photography could pay off. After a trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City to visit relatives, he showed his classmates pictures he’d shot in the cities, and “they were so taken with the photos they elected me class president,” he said, chuckling.
That was in 1942, and Jacksonville was still a “very rigidly segregated city—de facto slavery, essentially.” One way out was the military, and in 1944 Johnson was drafted by the Navy and sent to San Francisco for training. The city, a liberal haven even then, was a revelation. “I was fascinated by it,” he said. “It seemed relatively free compared to what I was accustomed to.”
After the war, he returned to Jacksonville, but his mind was on San Francisco. He saw an advertisement in a photography magazine for classes Adams was teaching in the city and decided to apply. “I didn’t know anything about Ansel Adams, didn’t know who he was,” he said. All he knew was that he wanted to take pictures and live in San Francisco.
He met none of the qualifications for admission. He hadn’t even graduated high school. But he did tell Adams in his application letter that he was “a Negro,” and that, he believes, is what got him in.
Not only did Adams accept Johnson, he also put him up at his house. Then, on the first day of school, all of the equipment Johnson needed “just appeared.”
Acculturation was difficult. It was little things, like language. Somebody asked him to pick up some debris, and he had no idea what was meant. “What is debris?” he asked, and when shown said, “Oh, you mean trash!”
These were minor problems, though. “Somehow, none of it seemed to matter. I picked it up right away,” he said. “Nobody ever suggested to me that I couldn’t make it.”
He got married and started a family and needed a regular job, so Johnson went to work at the post office. He joined the union and became its photographer, and he opened a small studio that had an apartment in back where he and his family lived.
He started taking pictures for local newspapers, which led him to meet and photograph many visiting black celebrities and dignitaries, including the writer Langston Hughes, attorney—and later Supreme Court Justice—Thurgood Marshall, pioneer black ballplayer Jackie Robinson, writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois, and musicians such as Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, T. Bone Walker and Paul Robeson.
He was also present at and documented such historic events as the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. One striking image from such an event included in this exhibit is of a young black boy sitting in the lap of a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile, at home he was chronicling black life in the Fillmore District, taking pictures of folks on the street as well as studio shots of elegantly attired African Americans wanting quality pictures to hang on their walls.
The deference these pictures showed is particularly striking. Johnson’s subjects clearly trusted him to protect their dignity, to portray them with deep appreciation and respect, and he didn’t let them down.
His specialty was jazz performers, and there is a good sampling of that work in this show, including several taken at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom.
A couple of years ago, Johnson told an interviewer he saw his role as that of a griot, a West African tribal elder who job is to pass on the stories and the wisdom of the past to younger generations.
“I have had the good fortune of seeing tremendous change in the world,” he said then. “My peers are passing, but a new generation is rising up. It is a great moment to be alive and pass on the history I have experienced.”
By the time Johnson came to Chico, Americans had elected their first black president. “I never thought I would see that in my lifetime,” he said.