MERCED — A living legend is making his mark with the next generation at the University of California, Merced. David Johnson, who photographed important moments in African-American life and history throughout the 20th century, now resides in nearby Atwater. Johnson is seizing the opportunity to share his experiences with college students and others in the community through an exhibit of his work at UC Merced, “David Johnson Photography: Past and Present Images,” opening on May 8.
“Learning about the past is important for university students, as they are in a phase of preparation,” Johnson said. “They can help society further the struggle that my generation undertook during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. They can take up the torch and complete the remaining work. They must consider how we as a nation relate to the world and how we can truly become what we say we are.”
Many of Johnson’s photographs are featured in the new book, “Harlem of the West,” by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts, which documents African-American life and culture in San Francisco. He is the only living photographer whose work is included in the book.
Johnson and his work will be greeted on campus with an opening reception and book signing in the third floor lantern area of the library on May 8 from 5 - 7 p.m., cosponsored by the Merced chapter of the NAACP. Johnson’s photographs of jazz musicians, civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens will be on display in the Kolligian Library until June 19, the “Juneteenth” holiday observed by many African-Americans nationwide commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
Johnson, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., was the first African American student of renowned photographer Ansel Adams. In Adams’ school he was advised to photograph his own neighborhood and document the faces and places with which he was most familiar. He subsequently became an important chronicler of black life in San Francisco in the middle part of the 20th century. His body of work includes photos of historical figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph, Nat “King” Cole and Eartha Kitt. He was also present photographing historical moments like the march on Washington when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The exhibit will also include telling depictions of poverty, social events, and other day-to-day phenomena for the mid-century African-American community and Johnson’s current work documenting the change from rural to developed land in the Central Valley.
In another part of Johnson’s career, he worked in the personnel department of the UC Medical Center in San Francisco, which became UCSF. In this role, he helped to integrate the campus racially and advocate for minority employees. Eventually, he became the head of staff training and received the Chancellor’s Public Service Award.
“David’s exhibit at UC Merced brings together two important parts of his past,” said UC Merced Art Coordinator Gail Benedict. “The years he spent as a photographer and his long relationship with the UC system are now combining to our benefit. It’s a great opportunity and honor for the students, faculty and staff to get to know a true historical figure in our community.”
Today, Johnson says, he sees his role as that of a griot. The word griot comes from West Africa and describes a tribal elder whose role is to pass on the stories and wisdom of the past to younger generations.
“This is not just telling,” Johnson says. “The activities of a griot may include images, song, dance.
“I have had the good fortune of seeing tremendous change in the world,” he explains. “My peers are passing, but a new generation is rising up. It is a great moment to be alive and pass on the history I have experienced.”