Getty Institute and Smithsonian Museum to Share Unprecedented Photographic Archive of Black American Lives

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In the second half of the 20th century, the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) of Chicago was the great creator of images of African-American life. In the oversized glossy pages of EbonyBlack America’s monthly counterpart Life magazine, and in the compact pages of Jet, a weekly news magazine, JPC published iconic photos of the civil rights movement and gave intimate insight into generations of black celebrities, from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and activist Rosa Parks to Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Whoopi Goldberg. Today, his vast, partially unexplored archive is held jointly by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), located in Washington, DC, and the Getty Research Institute in California, a program of the Getty Trust.

The publishing house, founded in 1942 by black businessman John H. Johnson, released both titles. They were sold in 2016, but JPC retained ownership of the archives, which understand more than 3 million photo and slide negatives, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets and 9,000 audio and visual recordings. After JPC filed for bankruptcy in 2019, a consortium including the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution purchased the records at auction, for a price grossed $30 million. Following the purchase, the consortium went public with its plans for the eventual transfer, which was announced on July 28.

Aretha Franklin receives valuable musical advice from her father, Reverend CL Franklin, in this undated handout photo by Isaac Sutton. Isaac Sutton/Ebony Collection. Johnson Publishing Company Archives. Courtesy of Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution

Since the Consortium acquired official ownership, a team of Chicago-based archivists funded by the Getty and led by Steven D. Booth of the Black Archivists Collective, the Blackivistshas been hard at work cataloging the multitudes of unknown images while undertaking the years-long digitization process, which will lead to a database open to the public.

“It’s really important that the archives not only be accessible to researchers and scholars, but also to students and everyday visitors,” says poet and NMAAHC director Kevin Young. In the short term, says Young, “we hope to have 80,000 or 90,000 images digitized by next year. And this fall, he says, NMAAHC will mount a small exhibit drawing on the archives, featuring images of a number of musicians who straddle the lines between religious and popular music, including Aretha Franklin and Prince.

In the long term, a significant portion of the archive will be housed in the Washington area – “We have all of these resources at our fingertips,” says Young – while some records will remain in Chicago.

While performing at the chic El Rancho Hotel in Montreal, Canada, Eartha added poolside exercise to her morning routine to stay in shape. Isaac Sutton/Ebony Collection. Johnson Publishing Company Archives. Courtesy of Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution

The staff photographers of Ebony and Jet “were among the best photographers in the world,” says Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Getty Research Institute associate curator for modern and contemporary collections, specializing in African-American art.

He cites figures like Moneta Sleet, Jr, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1968 Ebony photo of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr, and David Jackson, whose 1955 photos for Jet of Grandma Till gazing into the coffin of her lynched 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, are often credited with helping to ignite the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“We may be familiar with the iconic images from the collection that have been released,” he says, “but the contact sheets around those images will provide a much more complete understanding of events.”

Brooks says he appraised the archives for the Getty in the summer of 2019, around the time of the auction. He considers him nothing less than “the visual brain of 20th century African-American culture”.

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