"It’s a lot of history"
July 16, 2019 12:39 PM   Subscribe

A look at some of the gems hidden away in the photo archive of Ebony and Jet magazines, set to be auctioned tomorrow. With more than four million prints and negatives in boxes and old file cabinets, the archive is considered the most significant collection of photographs depicting African-American life in the 20th century. Much of it has barely been seen by the public in decades, and few photos have been digitized. Now art historians fear a private collector could buy the archive and stash it away.

“It keeps me up at night, thinking about the future of this archive,” said Tiffany M. Gill, associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware. “You can’t really tell the story of black life in the 20th century without these images from the Johnson archive. So it’s important that whatever happens in this auction, that these images are preserved and made available to scholars, art lovers and everyday folks.”
posted by bitteschoen (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This recent post about Ebony's test kitchen and the home of its founder might also be of interest. (Just popping this in here to say it's not a double)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:51 PM on July 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Isn't there some black millionaire who could step forward, buy the collection, and donate it to the Schomburg? I hate to think of these pictures just disappearing into some private collector's hands (or multiple collectors, fragmenting the collection).
posted by praemunire at 1:31 PM on July 16, 2019

Isn't there some black millionaire

This is part of US history and should be valued by all US people, not just black people. Black history is history.
posted by mosessis at 2:26 PM on July 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

Wow, WTF Smithsonian/Art Institute of Chicago/MoMA... snap this up.

Stoney Island Arts Bank has the Johnson Publishing archive.. maybe just actual back issues of magazines but I thought I remembered individual photos too? We saw some on a recent visit - just basically randomly selecting what to look at from the sizable on site collection. They're amazing historical objects.
posted by latkes at 2:26 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Obligatory rant about the evils of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, without which everything before 1963 would be in the public domain, and everything before 1991 that hadn't specifically been renewed, which includes almost all magazine content.

I've been looking through the archives of Jet and Ebony on Google Books recently, and there's a huge collection - but those PDFs can't be downloaded.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:52 PM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is part of US history and should be valued by all US people, not just black people. Black history is history.

No shit? And yet it is also specifically valuable to black Americans, who ought to be able to exercise control over their cultural heritage.
posted by praemunire at 9:35 PM on July 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

More historical background in this piece - and a relevant (and optimistic!) bit about the auction:
It’s certainly possible that the photographs that make up the Johnson Publishing photo archive could wind up controlled by an institution that has substantial input from African Americans and is committed to public access. Meller says that Hilco Streambank, the law firm in charge of organizing the auction, has been soliciting interest from museums and members of the African American philanthropic community. Earlier this spring, Capital Holdings V expressed a desire to preserve the images for posterity. The company could win the auction (or foreclose on the archive) and donate the images to, say, the nonprofit Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which recently broke ground in Los Angeles, or another institution. (Requests for comment from Capital Holdings and Rice were not returned.)

In the end, it will boil down to the intentions and values of the buyer. The archive is more than a “trophy,” Cherry says. “You can buy a Picasso, hang it on your wall, it sits there. But if you buy it with a purpose, to use it meaningfully, that is quite different.”

The conversation circles back to that twin legacy of John H. Johnson’s empire: history and money. And what ends up winning out should concern everyone. As Barnes said: “This is not only Black history, this is American history and global American culture.” Ebony and Jet were at the center of it all.
posted by bitteschoen at 6:53 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

We won’t know for a while what happened at the auction - The buyer may remain a mystery:
Only those who have submitted a bid will be able to attend today's sale, which will be finalized at a hearing on July 23.

"We won’t be able to comment until after the sale hearing," Benjamin Kaplan, an associate at Hilco Streambank, said in an email to USA TODAY. "And even then we may not be able to disclose the identity of the bidder."
posted by bitteschoen at 2:20 AM on July 18, 2019

Another quick update: Ebony photo archives auction resumes Monday after producing ‘multiple bidders’ but no clear winner:
An auction to sell bankrupt Johnson Publishing’s historic Ebony photo archives has been continued until Monday after producing “multiple bidders” but no clear winner.

The bidding Wednesday at a Chicago law office featured “robust action” throughout the day, according to a news release from Hilco Streambank, which is conducting the auction on behalf of the Johnson Publishing bankruptcy trustee. The participating bidders, all of whom had to offer a qualifying bid of at least $12.5 million, were not disclosed. (...)

The court-approved auction was adjourned until Monday at 2 p.m. to give the bankruptcy trustee and Capital V Holdings time “to consider pending and any additional offers” for the archives, according to the news release. Hilco also is openly soliciting “any interested parties who wish to participate in the continued auction” to step up.
posted by bitteschoen at 3:08 AM on July 20, 2019

An important update: good news! The archive buyers are donating it to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute, so it will be accessible to the public.

Here’s the full details, from Julie Bosman, the author of the NYT piece on the archive (the one linked in the post) -
A group of four major foundations got together, pooled $30 million, and won an auction for the Ebony and Jet archive. They only got the idea to form the group last week.

The group has promised to donate the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute so that it will be widely accessible to researchers, scholars and the public.

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation told me today that he was in Madrid last Tuesday when he read about the impending auction on his phone; he and Elizabeth Alexander of Mellon, emailing furiously, decided they had to do something.

They brought in two more foundations (very unusual), got approval from board members very quickly (also unusual), and yesterday cast the winning bid of $30 million. The deal is subject to court approval.

Elizabeth Alexander, who Darren Walker described as "the heroine" of the plan, tells me that she is thrilled that the archive will be opened up. “I think we actually cannot even fully measure what it is going to mean to have these images available," she says.

It's too early to know when or how the public will get to see all of these photos -- digitally, in an exhibition in Washington, etc. -- but the guiding principle is that they will be available and accessible.
posted by bitteschoen at 12:03 PM on July 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

That's wonderful news, bitteschoen! It would have been tragic to have it all locked away in a billionaire's vault.
posted by tavella at 12:54 PM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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