San Francisco photographer David Johnson’s photos capture another time – NBC Bay Area
David Johnson strode into the Harvey Milk Photo Center in San Francisco and dropped into a leather chair in the new David Johnson Photo Library.
Flanked on all sides by photography books, he picked up one with a cover bearing a photo of Johnson as a young man, holding a large-format camera that became his signature gear during his time prowling around the city’s Fillmore district. unassuming photos that would define a dying era.
“Handsome guy,” Johnson joked, looking at the dapperly dressed younger version of himself on the book’s cover.
Ever since the 1940s, when he studied with photography master Ansel Adams, Johnson was always in the company of his camera. He saw his adopted hometown of San Francisco through his lens, snapping photos of the people he would meet in the Fillmore neighborhood – known then as the Harlem of the West.
“I’m a popular photographer,” Johnson said. “I was interested in people who were interested in what I was doing.”
His favorite photo shows a five-year-old boy named Clarence sitting on the steps of a Fillmore church, wearing a newsboy’s cap. Another of his photos captured a legless man astride a skateboard. The photo does not draw attention to the man’s disability, but emphasizes his character.
“I was seeing him and so at some point I asked if he was okay if I photographed him,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson’s photos serve as a time capsule of the Fillmore district, before massive urban redevelopment in the 1960s displaced much of the area’s black community. Johnson’s photo of a busy Fillmore intersection shows a scene that no longer exists. Black men wearing hats and long winter coats walk down the street as a streetcar stops at a stop sign. Johnson said he stood on a balcony only to be shot.
“It’s a wonderful instrument for remembering the good,” Johnson said, looking at the photo of himself holding his camera, “and sometimes the not-so-good.”
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised by adoptive parents in a poor, segregated area of town. He developed an interest in the camera when he was young and said he found one that caught his eye at a pawn shop.
“I went downstairs and bought a camera,” Johnson said, “and started taking pictures of my neighborhood.”
He was drafted into the Navy during World War II and spent time in San Francisco before deploying to the Philippines. His forays into the city during a military leave will introduce him to the Fillmore district. Back in Jacksonville, he learned that Ansel Adams had opened a school and was looking for students.
“I wrote Ansel Adams, ‘Hi, my name is David Johnson, I’m a ghostwriter,'” he said. “‘I’ve seen your work and I’m curious about all this camera stuff.'”
Adams replied to Johnson that the race was no problem but the school was full. When a student dropped out, Adams again wrote Johnson inviting him to attend the school. Johnson lived for a time in Adam’s home in the Sea Cliff neighborhood while beginning photography classes at the California School of Fine Art, becoming Adams’ first black student. The school often hosted well-known photographers like Minor White who urged Johnson to photograph in his own surroundings, which in Johnson’s case was the Fillmore district where he spent most of his time.
He photographed life in the neighborhood, including its once-ubiquitous jazz clubs that nurtured the Fillmore’s reputation as a hub of jazz. But increasingly, his shutter was capturing the battle for civil rights – photographing Jackie Robinson on a civil rights march, as well as trailblazers Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes.
In 1963, the NAACP sent him as a delegate to the March on Washington. But unlike other photographers who looked to the catwalk for inspiration, Johnson found it in everyday people in the crowd.
“He walks through the crowd and through the crowd, he sees ordinary people and what ordinary people are doing,” Johnson’s wife, Jacqueline Annette Sue, said. “And that’s what makes these photographs so special that they were selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in their archives.”
Civil rights became a cornerstone of Johnson’s life; while working at the post office, he contributed to the creation of the union of postal workers and will become its president. He helped start the first Black Caucus at UCSF where he worked in the personnel office helping to hire more minority employees. He successfully sued the San Francisco Unified School District for what he believed to be racist enrollment policies.
“So David is basically behind a lot of these things now that people take for granted,” Sue said.
These days, when Johnson lifts a camera, it’s probably the camera phone in his pocket. But as his cameras got smaller, his reputation grew as people discovered his photos of a bygone time and place.
Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley obtained 5,000 slides and negatives from Johnson. His photos of the 1963 March on Washington were obtained by the Library of Congress. For Johnson, the view through the camera seems to look back as much as forward.
“It’s an instrument that, if used correctly,” he said, “can take you back to a place you admire.”