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Great Plains photographer John Johnson's lasting impact on the portrayal of African Americans in media

Photograph by John Johnson. Scan of a glass plate negative in The Douglas Keister Collection of Glass Plate Negatives from Lincoln, Nebraska circa 1910-1925. Manitoba "Toby" James had three daughters and two sons. Pictured with him are his firstborn son Mauranee (in the hat at right) and his daughters Myrtha (left) and Edna (center). James worked as a waiter and porter in the 1900s, then as a cleaner at various Lincoln laundries in the 1910s and '20s. He left Lincoln for Grand Island, Nebraska and then to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a city inspector of weights and measures. He moved to Oakland, California in the 1930s, where he owned Owl Cleaners. He died there in 1951.
© Douglas Keister Collection
/
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photograph by John Johnson. Scan of a glass plate negative in The Douglas Keister Collection of Glass Plate Negatives from Lincoln, Nebraska circa 1910-1925. Manitoba "Toby" James had three daughters and two sons. Pictured with him are his firstborn son Mauranee (in the hat at right) and his daughters Myrtha (left) and Edna (center). James worked as a waiter and porter in the 1900s, then as a cleaner at various Lincoln laundries in the 1910s and '20s. He left Lincoln for Grand Island, Nebraska and then to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a city inspector of weights and measures. He moved to Oakland, California in the 1930s, where he owned Owl Cleaners. He died there in 1951.

As we celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans during Black History Month, we’re exploring the impact of a talented and prolific photographer, John Johnson, whose work left powerful images of what life was like for African Americans living in the Great Plains in the early 20th century.

Johnson’s photography can now be found in museums across the country, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC, to the Greeley History Museum, where some of Johnson’s work is currently on display in the “Black and White in Black and White” exhibit through May 28th, 2022.

The story of the collection begins in the 1960s, when a teenager in Lincoln, Nebraska named Doug Keister acquired a heavy box from a friend. The box was filled with hundreds of glass-plate negatives, a photography technology that was in use around the turn of the 20th century.

He kept these negatives over the decades, and in 1999, saw an article from his hometown newspaper about historians uncovering glass negatives from the 1910s and 1920s that featured portraits of the city’s African American population. The negatives found by historians featured images similar to the ones Keister had acquired decades before, leading him to investigate further.

The negatives found by the city’s historians, and the hundreds Keister acquired in the 1960s featured the work of John Johnson, who documented life for African American communities in the Great Plains in striking, contrast-rich portraits.

To further explore the life, work and legacy of John Johnson, we speak with Dr. Aaron Bryant, a curator of photography and visual culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and a fellow with the John W. Kluge Center, at the Library of Congress.

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