Ebony Exposure: Al Smith’s Documentary Photograph of Black Lives in Seattle on display at MOHAI | January 10, 2018


Entering “Seattle in Place: The Photographs of Al Smith,” one is transported to Smith’s world. The sound of Fats Waller singing “The Joint is Jumpin ‘” fills the space along with hundreds of photographs showcasing the vibrant social scene and daily life of the Central District (CD) black community. Images include a couple dancing the jitterbug for a watchful crowd, a beaming newly married couple and a child sitting on his father’s shoulders with the majestic Mount Rainier in the background. The exhibition of the work of deceased photographers at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) features a fraction of the images he captured throughout his life.

“It gives you a unique and slightly personal glimpse into a part of Seattle’s history – geographically, socially, culturally – that was very, very under-documented,” said MOHAI photography curator Howard Giske. “You can’t see this glimpse of this past any other way.”

Curator and historian Quin’Nita Cobbins described Smith’s work as a historical treasure: “This exhibit is important because it further demonstrates that Seattle’s black community has a history and that those stories need to be nested within the northern narrative. -western Pacific. “

Smith was born in 1916 to immigrant parents from Jamaica. He had an ethnically diverse group of friends in the Central District and enjoyed cycling to Tacoma. He received his first camera as a teenager and quickly developed a passion for photography. After high school, Smith’s desire to see the world came true as he roamed the Pacific Ocean as a steward on steamboats such as the SS President Grant in the 1930s. In 1939 he returned in his hometown of Seattle with his first professional camera. He later started working for the US Postal Service to provide for his wife and children, but his camera was still nearby.

In 1942, Smith opened a photography business called “On the Spot,” a phrase commonly used at the time to describe someone who was in the right place at the right time. Smith was a fixture on the Seattle jazz scene and took thousands of photos of patrons enjoying a night out. His son Al “Butch” Smith Jr. credits his father with the ability to put people at ease.

“He didn’t pass judgment,” Butch said. “If you look at his photos a lot, you’ll see expressions on the faces of the people who greet him at their tables. Welcoming way, don’t get out of here don’t bother me.

MOHAI recreated a jazz club with a video, figures holding instruments, tables and a dance floor. Most of the photos in the exhibition are framed, while others are enlarged to life-size proportions. In the nightclub pictures, both men and women are wearing their Sunday outfits and all the hair is in place. Mostly smiling faces watch visitors as they enjoy a night out on the town.

Everyday footage includes a photo of Claude “Sonny” Norris Jr. sitting at a lifeguard station circa 1955. He was the first black lifeguard and beach manager at Madrona Beach.

Another section is dedicated to the Marie Edwards Beauty School, which was the first black beauty school in the Pacific Northwest. The students learned hairdressing techniques as well as how to perform manicures and facials.

For Cobbins, Smith’s work creates another dimension to the research she has done on the CD.

“To see the expression on the faces, and what does that say about this particular moment about how they lived their lives in our city amid racial discrimination. How they were actually trying, you know, to start a family, to start a family, to build a community, to make those kinds of connections, ”Cobbins said. “Everyday life that I don’t necessarily see in written form. “

Smith learned photography himself and regularly read photography magazines. The exhibit includes a darkroom and explains the development process. In 1986, Smith volunteered at MOHAI in the photography department. He passed away in 2008, and in 2014 his family donated over 40,000 photos to the museum. According to Cobbins, this is the largest collection of photos of blacks amassed in Washington state. The exhibition is more than an opportunity to marvel at well-composed photographs; it is also a cultural study.

“I want people to appreciate his work as a photographer,” said Butch. “I want African-American history scholars to appreciate the contribution of his photos to the documentary on the migration of African-American families from across the country, especially in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s in the Seattle area here. . I see this as a really important contribution.

Smith didn’t consider himself a documentary photographer, but that’s exactly what his working life has become. Smith may have viewed his craft as a hobby, but his photos are much more than that. As the CD changes and the black population of the Emerald City continuously decreases, its work cements the community’s legacy and contributions. “Seattle on the Spot” is a magical journey of resilience and his work is an irreplaceable gift.

WHAT: “Seattle in place: Al Smith’s photographs”
WHEN: Until June 17th.
OR: Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) 860 Terry Ave N, Seattle

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