At San Diego Museum of Art, snapshots of ‘Black Life’

Exhibit displays the work of three Los Angeles photographers who captured the ordinary and the extraordinary


The 40 black-and-white photographs at the San Diego Museum of Art’s new exhibition document moments in time — small ones, big ones and unforgettable ones — capturing glimpses of a pivotal era in Southern California history from a rarely seen perspective.

“Black Life: Images of Resistance and Resilience in Southern California” offers a look at the African-American community in the Los Angeles area through the lens of three black photographers: Harry Adams, Charles Williams and Guy Crowder. The three, all deceased, were freelance photographers for regional publications, mainly the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle.

The photographs cover a 50-year time span starting in the 1940s when Los Angeles was a flash point for civil rights activism.

“This period that we’re looking at represents one of the most important periods in African-American life,” said Gaidi Finnie, who curated the exhibition. Finnie is executive director of the AjA Project, a nonprofit organization helping under-served youth find their voice through photography, and chairman of the board of the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Arts, a museum without walls that collaborates with other institutions to bring African American culture and art to San Diego.

The photographs are from the archives of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge. Finnie said he culled the 40 photos from 20,000 images.

“It was daunting,” he said.

The final mix has been divided into four categories: entertainment, prominent sports figures, activism and daily life. The images are on display in the museum’s Fleming Sr. Gallery, a section of the museum by the Panama 66 restaurant that is free to the public.

“I wanted people to see the breadth of that period,” Finnie said. “It really is a period that a vast amount of change is happening in the African-American community.”

The three photographers were well-known to the community and had access to celebrities and sports figures and were also on the front lines of politics and unrest, including the Watts Riots. But the images show the community where these photographers lived as more than just flash points for the headlines of the day. South Los Angeles was a place where people lived with ordinary people doing ordinary things — and also not-so-ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Crowder captured Muhammad Ali sharing a laugh with Stokely Carmichael in a meeting room at a special event in 1973 and Stevie Wonder standing over the shoulder of Motown founder Berry Gordy in his office in 1982 as the two are in a conversing. There’s a 1963 photo by Adams of Malcolm X sitting at a table with Nation of Islam Minister John Shabazz.

But there is also a mother walking down the street with her children, hoop shots of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan both taken in 1989 and people dressed up for a night on the town.

The images show laughter as well as anger and despair. Sometimes the subject is familiar but the angle is different. Crowder’s 1969 photo of the aftermath of a raid on the Black Panthers Party office shows police with guns drawn in front building, but it also shows the sign on the building that reads “Feed Hungry Children. Free Breakfast.” The Black Panthers started a successful breakfast program for schoolchildren that year.

“It’s a different perspective than an L.A. Times photo would have been,” Finnie said.

From Martin Luther King Jr. at the Second Baptist Church to the empty smoldering streets during the Watts Riots and the King family in mourning, many of the photographs have not had a wide audience. They are straightforward shots, recording events of the time.

For these three photographers, taking pictures was a way to make a living, not an art form.

“They were looking to get paid. There aren’t a lot of pretty pictures,” he said.

Adams (1918-1988) learned his trade at the California School of Photography and Graphic Design, which was operated by Williams (1908-1986). He was well-known with the community’s movers and shakers and for his quick work, earning him the moniker “One Shot Harry.”

Williams’ Los Angeles freelance career started in the 1940s but was interrupted when his Japanese wife was sent to an internment camp and he moved to be near her. He eventually became the official photographer for Los Angeles City Councilman Gordon Hahn.

Crowder (1940-2011), a graduate of Compton High School, became interested in photography during his years as a Marine. He had his own studio and worked for Los Angeles Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, the first African-American employed by the board of supervisors.

“It’s important that we have a look and see this period,” Finnie said. “We are back to this same sort of turmoil. It’s good to see how these people went through it.”

“Black Life: Images of Resistance and Resilience in Southern California”

When: Aug. 24 through Dec. 1

Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

Admission: Free

Phone: (619) 232-7931