The photographer who captured Black San Francisco in the 1960s: ‘We wouldn’t have seen it without him’

<span>A young boy sits on an Abraham Lincoln statue in front of San Francisco’s city hall during a NAACP-sponsored demonstration.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of the David Johnson Photograph Archive; the Bancroft Library; the University of California, Berkeley</span>
A young boy sits on an Abraham Lincoln statue in front of San Francisco’s city hall during a NAACP-sponsored demonstration.Photograph: Courtesy of the David Johnson Photograph Archive; the Bancroft Library; the University of California, Berkeley

David Johnson saved a portrait he took as a teen of his younger brother and a relative while they were growing up in segregated Florida in the 1940s.

Johnson, who was the only person who could read and write in his household, knew nothing about photography then, he recalled in 2017, but something told him that one day he would be a photographer.

His decision would prove to be prescient. Johnson’s interest in the field led him to San Francisco in the 1940s, where he would become the first Black student of Ansel Adams, an accomplished documentarian of the city’s Black community and an activist.

Johnson captured iconic images of the Fillmore district, a thriving community for San Francisco’s Black residents before they were forced out by government “redevelopment” initiatives in the 1960s. He also documented the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington, and photographed high-profile figures such as WEB Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt.

“He was quite a man,” Candace Sue, Johnson’s stepdaughter, said in an interview. “There are very few people who in their lifetime can achieve even one of the things he managed to achieve in his 97 years.”

Johnson died last month at age 97, but lived to see a renewed appreciation for his work. In recent years, Johnson’s photos were inducted into the Library of Congress and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and featured in an exhibit at city hall. The Bancroft is home to Johnson’s archive, which serves as a primary source material of the era.

“[Johnson] is this great story of when a masterpiece finally finds its moment,” said Christine Hult-Lewis, the library’s pictorial curator.

Ansel Adams told him: photograph what you know

Johnson, born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1926, was interested in photography from an early age. He got his first camera as a prize for selling magazine subscriptions as a teen, he said in an interview at the Bancroft Library in 2017.

He fell in love with San Francisco when he visited after being drafted into the US navy during the second world war. When his service was over, Johnson knew he wanted to study photography and wrote to Ansel Adams, who was overseeing a program at the California School of Fine Arts.

“[I] wrote a telegram and said ‘Dear Mr Adams, I’m interested in studying photography. And by the way I’m a Negro.”

Most schools in the south didn’t admit Black students, and Johnson didn’t want to travel across the country only to be turned away. “I had to cover my bases,” he said.

When a spot opened up, Adams offered him admission to the program and invited Johnson to stay with him until he could find a place to live. He was met by the acclaimed photographer Minor White, who would become his mentor. White and the other photographers around Adams’ home at the time wanted him to have a better camera and pooled together their old equipment, Jackie Sue Johnson, Johnson’s wife, told the Guardian.

“He was thrown in a group of people that didn’t look like him – they were all white, but they gave David all of their equipment that they weren’t using,” she said. “They taught him a lot. They just took him and really supported him.”

Adams and most of the other photographers were interested in nature, Jackie Sue Johnson recalled, but that was never David’s passion. “He didn’t have a car, and if he had a car he didn’t have gas money, so he couldn’t go to Yosemite and Muir Woods and take this wonderful nature photography.”

White and Adams told him to photograph what he knew. “What David knew is he knew his people,” said Jackie Sue Johnson, who along with her husband authored a book on his life.

Johnson headed to the Fillmore. Sometimes called the Harlem of the West, the Fillmore also had a thriving jazz scene before redevelopment ousted thousands of people. He remained in the neighborhood for years, and went on to work as a photojournalist.

His work centered people – a couple dancing close in a juke joint, men chatting outside a record shop and, in one of his favorite photos, a little boy in a cap sitting on steps.

“The pictures have this real poignancy of a place that just doesn’t exist in the same way any more,” Hult-Lewis said. The influence of Adams and his education can be seen in the quality of Johnson’s prints, she said, and the beautiful composition of his photos.

One of his most famous images is the Fillmore from four stories up. He climbed up the scaffolding of the Bank of America to capture a quick photo of a street corner from above, with street cars and vehicles in motion and pedestrians making their way from one side to another. Earlier in the day, he had taken a moving portrait of a disabled man on a skateboard.

“Athletes will say that when they hit several home runs, it was kind of their day. There are instances in my life and photography where it was just my day,” Johnson said in the 2017 interview. “The images just sprung out of nowhere. It was almost saying – that’s it, go for it.”

Johnson had a gift for capturing a single moment, Jackie Sue Johnson said. In another one of his more well-known photographs, a boy holding a flag sits in the lap of an Abraham Lincoln statue at a civil rights demonstration in San Francisco. “Lincoln, the flag, everything was there. It was almost like the gods set it up for me,” Johnson recalled.

‘More than just a photographer’: a foray into activism

For a time Johnson operated a studio in the Fillmore, but he eventually stopped working as a photographer and turned to other jobs to support his family, Hult-Lewis said. He worked at the University of California, San Francisco, where he co-founded the Black caucus to advocate for the rights of Black workers, Candace Sue said. Johnson and the NAACP sued the San Francisco unified school district to demand school desegregation as required by law.

“My personal saying is David was more than just a photographer,” Jackie Sue Johnson said. “He loved photography. It’s all he could talk about, but he was [also] a civil rights activist. He was always an activist. He was always trying to help or advocate for the underdog.”

Into his 90s, he would visit the San Francisco board of supervisors to advocate for legislation, particularly those supporting people with mental illness, his family said.

He never had exhibitions while he was working as a photographer, but his work has been rediscovered and recognized widely in recent years after it was featured in the 2006 book Harlem of the West.

“When I found his work I went hallelujah because it had a much more expansive description of this neighborhood,” said Lewis Watts, a co-author of the book, photographer and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“He was an incredible artist and an incredible person,” said Watts, who said he viewed Johnson as a friend, colleague and mentor. “The humanity in his work is reflected by the person that he was.”

In the years since, his photos have been included in a KQED documentary on the Fillmore District and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as city hall. It’s been a slow build, Hult-Lewis said, but Johnson was thrilled to witness it.

Johnson will be remembered for his civic contributions, Candace Sue, Johnson’s stepdaughter, said, and his documentation of the Fillmore.

“We remember and can see the joy and vibrancy of the Fillmore and what it was like before it was destroyed,” she said. “He documented what is no more and I don’t think we would see it the way we see it today without having that lens of the past.”