NewsDavid Johnson, Groundbreaking Photographer, Dies At 97

David Johnson, Groundbreaking Photographer, Dies At 97

Johnson’s work is significant, because his photographs document both the lives and conditions of Black people as they sought to gain civil rights.

David Johnson, a photographer who became the first Black student of Ansel Adams after a student dropped out of one of his classes, died earlier in March. His stepdaughter informed NPR that Johnson had been suffering from an advanced form of dementia and pneumonia; he was 97 when he transitioned. 

Johnson had always carried an interest in photography, which was further piqued when he came across a magazine article that said the California School of Fine Arts was beginning a photography program under the direction of Ansel Adams. Johnson had, at the time, recently returned from service in the U.S. Navy. Johnson sent a message declaring his interest in the program, as he said in an interview with the Berkeley Library, “I said, ‘Dear Mr. Adams: I’m interested in studying photography. … By the way, I’m a negro.’”

Initially, Adams declined because there wasn’t a spot, but later he received a telegram from Adams, which read, “There’s a spot for you, David, if you want to proceed.”

Johnson did not have any formal training in photography when he left Jacksonville, Florida, for California, as the photographer told Berkeley, “I didn’t have that background. What I had was a burning desire to study photography and succeed.”

Upon his arrival, Johnson’s professors made him feel welcome, from Adams putting him up in his home until Johnson could afford a new place to live to Minor White, another professor, also helped to surprise Johnson with a new camera after he showed him his folding Eastman camera. Johnson recalled what the gesture meant to him, telling the library “They put their money (together) to buy me a new camera,” Johnson said. “They wanted me to succeed.”

When Johnson moved out of Adams’ home, he settled in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, where Black people settled post-World War II. Johnson indicated to the library that not only were they his friends and neighbors, but they became his subjects.

Johnson’s favorite image, one he considers his defining image, came from the Fillmore neighborhood. Clarence, a 1947 image of a young Black boy sitting on the steps of a church. The subject resonated with Johnson as they share a common background. According to Johnson, he was raised by a relative, like Johnson, and maintained a “certain Innocence.”

Johnson continued, “There was something about this little boy. I could see myself in him.”

Johnson also turned his lens towards more weighty matters once the opportunity presented itself to him. In addition to capturing images of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nat King Cole, Langston Hughes, Eartha Kitt, and Jackie Robinson, he also captured images of the March on Washington.

According to Von Euw, Johnson’s life reflects the ability of Black people in his generation to create something marvelous out of a set of circumstances that tried to limit their mobility. 

“It really is an amazing story of someone who had the will, the vision, the perseverance to transform his life completely under what were really constrained circumstances.”

RELATED CONTENT: History Documented: Meet Atlanta’s Beloved Photo Documentarian, Susan J. Ross

Source: Black Enterprise

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