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David Johnson: Modern day griot

February 23, 2015

by Malaika Kambon

David Johnson, holding his first camera, and his wife and biographer, Jacqueline Annette Sue Johnson, were the stars of the show at the reception for an exhibition of his work at the Harvey Milk Photography Center on Oct. 15, 2014. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

David Johnson, holding his first camera, and his wife and biographer, Jacqueline Annette Sue Johnson, were the stars of the show at the reception for an exhibition of his work at the Harvey Milk Photography Center on Oct. 15, 2014. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Master photographer David Johnson describes himself as “the modern day griot who tells the story of the past through his photographs.” A native of Jacksonville, Florida, he was the first Afrikan student of Ansel Adams.

Now 88, Mr. Johnson is not only a Bay Area resident, living in Marin County, and a documentarian of six decades of Afrikan life, he is a very important classic photojournalist whose 30-piece collection documenting the San Francisco Fillmore District during the 1940s to 1960s was exhibited at the Harvey Milk Photography Center in San Francisco in October 2014.

San Francisco’s vibrant Afrikan Fillmore community became his signature tableau.

Johnson recorded everything from school children playing in 1946 to “downtown” Fillmore Street and the Fillmore’s jazz clubs of the 1950s and 1960s and the civil rights era of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is predominantly due to the vibrancy and prolificacy of his work that a priceless era of Afrikan history and community life remains as a testimonial for future generations.

During a visit by an Academy of Art Photography 101 history class, Mr. Johnson constantly pointed out buildings, shops and clubs in his photographs that no longer exist in the Fillmore. The gentrification of the Fillmore District has stolen lives and continues to destroy an important fabric of history, as recently as 2014 with the loss of San Francisco’s Marcus Book Store, in a Black community that was once termed the west coast that Harlem copied.

This big “coffee table” book on David Johnson, published in 2012, is written by his wife, Jacqueline Annette Sue Johnson, who has also made a documentary film by the same name. It is “the story of how one of the most significant cultural photographers came to the apex of his career.” Jacqueline Annette Sue has a MA degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary and was honored by the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library as their 2010 literary laureate. David Johnson had just turned 19 when he was taken in by Ansel Adams as a student and houseguest.

This big “coffee table” book on David Johnson, published in 2012, is written by his wife, Jacqueline Annette Sue Johnson, who has also made a documentary film by the same name. It is “the story of how one of the most significant cultural photographers came to the apex of his career.” Jacqueline Annette Sue has a MA degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary and was honored by the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library as their 2010 literary laureate. David Johnson had just turned 19 when he was taken in by Ansel Adams as a student and houseguest.

Noelle Sterne says, in her 2009 article “Octogenarian Photographer Extraordinaire: David Johnson:” “At age 83, David Johnson shoots straight and strong. A professional and accomplished photographer, he is also a multiple role model. He made a boyhood passion and dream his reality: to become a photographer, the first African American to study with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Johnson is fulfilling his declared mission and has become a primary photographic chronicler of African American life.

“He is a man who has risen above extreme prejudicial treatment as a child growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, and an adult in San Francisco in the 1940s and 1950s. And he is an octogenarian who sees no limits to chronological age. Johnson continues his drive to learn and create, excelling at his profession, mounting frequent shows, and sharing his expertise and wisdom with younger artists.

“Fueled by his love of photography, Johnson broke a racial barrier at age 19 in 1946. Living in Jacksonville, he saw an article in the local paper announcing that Ansel Adams, already a nationally renowned photographer, would head the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Johnson wrote to Adams, requesting permission to join the class and stating that he was a Negro. In Adams’ reply, he admitted Johnson to the school and added that his race did not matter. When Johnson enrolled, Adams welcomed him into his home, where Johnson lived during his photographic studies. Adams counseled him early, ‘Photograph what you know best.’ This wise advice led to Johnson’s enduring and wide-ranging chronicling of African American life.”

“Getting down at the joint, Bayview District” – Photo: David Johnson

“Getting down at the joint, Bayview District” – Photo: David Johnson

“We Demand” was taken at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington – Photo: David Johnson

“We Demand” was taken at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington – Photo: David Johnson

Mr. Johnson – who says that he doesn’t do color photographs, and so his entire collection of work for the most part is done in stunning black and white imagery – was advised in his classes at the California School of Fine Arts to photograph and document the faces and places with which he was the most familiar.

San Francisco’s vibrant Afrikan Fillmore community became his signature tableau.

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at kambonrb@pacbell.net.

3 thoughts on “David Johnson: Modern day griot

  1. marian

    Great story! Art is always something that can bring down barriers and bring people together. Photography is a very powerful form of art and it can reveal things that are not clear to the naked eye. He's story is very interesting!

    Reply
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