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The Getty Institute and Smithsonian Museum will share an unprecedented photographic archive of Black American life | Pro Club Bd

In the second half of the 20th century, Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) was the great image maker of African American life. On the glossy pages of ebonythe monthly counterpart of Black America life Magazine, and in the compact pages of jet, a news week, JPC published iconic photos of the civil rights movement and gave intimate insights into generations of black celebrities, from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and activist Rosa Parks to Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Whoopi Goldberg. Now his vast and partially unexplored archive has ended up in the joint ownership of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, and California’s Getty Research Institute, a Getty Trust program.

Founded in 1942 by black businessman John H. Johnson, the publishing house brought both titles onto the market. They were sold in 2016 but JPC retained ownership of the archive, including more than 3 million photo negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets and 9,000 sound and image recordings. After JPC went into bankruptcy protection in 2019, a consortium of the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution bought the archive for reporting at auction 30 million dollars. Following the purchase, the consortium released its plans for the eventual transfer, which was announced on July 28th.

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

Since the consortium acquired formal ownership, a Chicago-based team of archivists funded by Getty and led by Steven D. Booth (a member of the black archivist collective Blackivists), was in the process of cataloging the multitude of unknown images while undertaking the year-long digitization process that will result in a publicly accessible database.

“It’s really important that the archives are not only available to researchers and scholars, but also to students and visitors,” says poet and NMAAHC director Kevin Young. In the short term, Young says, “we’re hoping to have 80,000 or 90,000 images digitized by next year.” And this fall, he says, NMAAHC will be hosting a small exhibition from the archives, featuring images of a range of musicians pushing the boundaries transcending 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 on hand,” says Young – while some materials will remain in Chicago.

During her performance 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. Archives of the Johnson Publishing Company. Courtesy of the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution

The staff photographers at ebony and jet “were among the best photographers in the world,” says Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator of the Getty Research Institute’s modern and contemporary collections, specializing in African American art.

He cites figures such as Moneta Sleet, Jr., who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 ebony Photograph of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., and David Jackson, whose 1955 photographs for jet by Mamie Till, who look into the coffin of their lynched 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, are often credited with helping ignite the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

“We may be familiar with the iconic images from the collection that have been released,” he says, “but the contact sheets surrounding those images will provide a much fuller understanding of what happened.”

Brooks says he evaluated the archive on behalf of Getty in the summer of 2019, around the time of the auction. He considers it nothing less than “the visual brain of 20th-century African-American culture.”

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