de Saisset Museum

South Bay's free museum of art and history

Recovered Views: African American Portraits, 1912-1925

May 15–July 31, 2005

 little-white-house-xl mother-child-xl

Recovered Views: African American Portraits, 1912-1925 presents 40 photographs from a truly extraordinary collection. The black-and-white portraits were made by an anonymous African-American who lived and worked in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early part of the twentieth century. Made between about 1912 and 1925, these portraits are more than just stunning images—they document life in a vibrant, middle-class black neighborhood in a small Midwestern city, a portion of society rarely depicted in any medium. Moreover, they provide an insider’s view of a small but thriving African American community during a period of transforming and increasingly charged race relations.

The photographs are attributed to John Johnson, a lifelong resident of Lincoln. Johnson, the son of a Civil War veteran, was born in 1879 and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1899. He briefly attended the University of Nebraska and worked most of his life at different jobs, including that of a janitor for the post office and a drayman (cart or wagon driver). Johnson’s subjects were diverse, ranging from poised individuals in their “Sunday best” attire to architecture (including buildings such as Quinn Chapel African Methodist Church, the Miller and Paine department store, and the Lincoln courthouse). Community elders remember Johnson traveling by horse and buggy, carrying his camera and tripod, and taking photographs throughout the town. Johnson continued to live in Lincoln until his death in 1953. However, no glass-plate negatives dated after 1925 have been found. Why would such an accomplished photographer stop producing images in the middle of his career? This question has led some researchers to propose that perhaps another photographer was involved. Some suggest that Earl McWilliams—another Lincoln-based photographer—may be solely responsible, or that he may have worked collaboratively with Johnson. McWilliams left Lincoln for California in 1925, a move which may explain why no images produced after that date have been found in the area.

Despite their uncertain attribution, the photographs in the exhibition demonstrate the talent of a remarkable artist. The images are beautifully composed and feature careful handling of natural light. Perhaps most importantly, these images carry a fascinating psychological power. The subjects, in their natural poses and informal settings, are extremely compelling. They draw us in to the images, leading us to wonder: Who are these individuals? What were their lives like? The photographer’s interest in detail makes us more intrigued, as we seek out clues to the mystery of who these sitters really are.

The prints in Recovered Views are digitally-printed, high-resolution scans from the original glass negatives and photographic prints. Recovered Views offers viewers an opportunity to see selections from one of the most important American artistic and historical discoveries of recent years.

As a special addition to the traveling exhibition, the de Saisset Museum will feature three of the original postcard prints that were used to make some of the large-scale prints in the exhibition.

Photos, left to right: John Johnson, Women posing in front of little white house, c. 1915, digital print from original negative, print dimensions: 13 15/16 x 19 5/8 in., Collection Nebraska State Historical Society, Image courtesy of ExhibitsUSA. John Johnson, Mother and laughing child, c. 1915, digital print from original negative, print dimensions: 19 1/2 x 13 7/8 in., Collection Nebraska State Historical Society, Image courtesy of ExhibitsUSA