David Johnson stepped into the Harvey Milk Photo Center in San Francisco and sat down on the leather chair of the newly named David Johnson Photo Library.
With his photobooks lined up on all sides, he picked up a cover with photographs of his youth and became his signature device when he wandered around the snaps of the city’s Fillmore district. I had a large format camera. An unpretentious photo that defines the disappearing era.
“Handsome man” Johnson was looking at himself in a young version dressed on the cover of a book.
Ever since studying under photography master Ansel Adams in the 1940s, Johnson has always had a camera. He looked through the lens of his adopted city of San Francisco and took pictures of the people he met in the Fillmore district. At that time it was known as the Western Harlem.
“I’m a photographer,” Johnson said. “I was interested in someone who was interested in what I was doing.”
His favorite photo shows a five-year-old boy named Clarence sitting on the steps of the Fillmore Church, wearing a newsboy cap. Another of his photographs was of a man with no legs straddling a skateboard. The photo does not draw attention to a man’s disability, but still emphasizes his character.
“I meet him, so at some point I asked if I could take a picture of him,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson’s photo acts as a time capsule for the Fillmore district before the massive urban redevelopment of the 1960s replaced much of the black community in the region. Pictures of Johnson’s bustling Fillmore intersection show a scene that no longer exists. When the tram pauses at the stop sign, a black man in a hat and a long winter coat walks down the street. Johnson said he was standing on the balcony to get a shot.
“It’s a great instrument to remember good things, sometimes not so good,” Johnson said, looking at a picture of him holding a camera.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was raised by foster parents in a poor area of the city and lived in isolation. He was interested in cameras from an early age and found a camera that he saw at a pawn shop.
“I got off and bought a camera, and started taking pictures of the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
He was drawn into the Marines during World War II and spent time in San Francisco before deploying in the Philippines. He was introduced to the Fillmore district when he invaded the city during his military vacation. When he returned to Jacksonville, he learned that Ansel Adams had started school and was looking for a student.
“I wrote to Ansel Adams.’Hello, my name is David Johnson. I’m Negro,'” he said. “Looking at your work, I’m interested in this entire camera business. I have.”
Adams answered the Johnson race, which was not a problem, but the school was full. When the student dropped out, Adams wrote to Johnson again and encouraged him to go to school. Johnson lived for a while at Adam’s house in the Seacliffe district while starting a photography class at the California School of Art, becoming Adams’ first black student. Schools often accepted famous photographers like Minor White and urged Johnson to take pictures in his own environment. In Johnson’s case, he was in the Fillmore district, where he was spending more time.
He filmed neighborhood life, including the once ubiquitous jazz club that made Fillmore’s reputation as the center of jazz. But more and more his shutters will capture the fight for civil rights-on the civil rights march Jackie Robinson, and the pioneers Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes.
In 1963, the NAACP sent him on behalf of the March on Washington. But unlike other photographers who turned to the podium for inspiration, Johnson found it in the general public in the crowd.
“He’s roaming the crowd and seeing what the ordinary people are doing,” said Johnson’s wife Jacqueline Annette Sue. “It was chosen by the Library of Congress to be archived because it makes these photos so special.”
Civil rights became the basis of Johnson’s life. While working at the post office, he helped establish a union of post office workers and continued to be its president. He helped start the first Black Caucus at UCSF, where he worked in the Human Resources department and helped hire more and fewer employees. He successfully sued the San Francisco Unified School District for what he believed was a racist registration policy.
“Therefore, now that people take it for granted, David is basically at the foundation of many of these,” Sue said.
These days Johnson lifts the camera, it’s probably a camera phone in his pocket. But as his camera got smaller, his reputation grew as people discovered his pictures of times and places gone by.
The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley has obtained 5,000 Johnson slides and negatives. His photo of March 1963 in Washington was obtained by the Library of Congress. For Johnson, the view through the camera seems to look back as much as it looks forward to.
“It’s an instrument that, when used properly, can bring you back to a place you admire,” he said.