As part of Black History Month events taking place on campus, CSU, Chico will mount the nation's first formal exhibit of historical photos of predominantly African American citizens taken in Lincoln, Nebraska between 1910-25.
These photo works, part of the Douglas Keister Collection of Glass Plate Negatives, 1910-25, will be displayed publicly for the first time February 1-24 in the Humanities Center Gallery in an exhibition entitled Black and White in Black and White.
Joel Zimbelman, Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at CSU, Chico, coordinated efforts to bring this historical collection to The Humanities Center Gallery.
“These photographs provide lots of insight into the state of photographic technology and the aesthetics of photography at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Zimbelman. “They also tell us a lot about the socio-economic state of some black families in Nebraska at that time; some hints at the state of race relations and integration/discrimination; as well as a rich tapestry that reveals much about the interpersonal and familial relationships that held sway in this community.”
Zimbelman and Keister met when they were both members of the Turner Print Museum Advisory Board. Zimbelman found out about the collection, and the amazing story of how Keister had come to possess the glass negatives. He later read the book written by Keister and Ed Zimmer, “Lincoln in Black and White: 1910-1925,” that documents the collection. (The book will be for sale at the CSU, Chico Associated Students Bookstore during the exhibition.)
As Keister and Zimmer’s book notes, Lincoln, Nebraska, circa 1910-25, while being the state's second-largest city, was also home to Nebraska's second-largest African American community—a "small town" within the mid-western city. Local race relations were a study in contradictions. Public education and residential neighborhoods were relatively integrated; employment and social institutions were increasingly restricted.
Within this setting, a laborer named John Johnson — a native of Lincoln and son of an African American Civil War veteran — produced remarkable images as an itinerant photographer of the Lincoln scene, especially of its black community. Johnson left very little written record, so knowledge is fragmentary of his working techniques and of his collaborators or assistants. But his visual legacy takes people through the streets, onto the front porches, and into the backyards and living rooms of a vibrant community.
The photos themselves are of a professional nature; many were shot in front of a backdrop outside using available light. They depict scenes of the African American and immigrant community. People are dressed formally and in their every-day clothing. There are photos of hairdressers, musicians, baseball players, workmen, children, families, etc. Each photo has been painstakingly researched by Keister and Zimmer and will be accompanied during the exhibition by a description and (when possible) names of the people in it.
Because of the large size of the glass negatives and their mostly pristine condition, many of the photos will be shown in large-scale, some as big as 40 inches by 60 inches. It is anticipated that the impact of the large sepia-tone photos mounted on gator board on the white walls of the gallery will create a powerful visual experience between image and audience.
Viewing the photos will be like taking a trip through time, noted Zimbelman.
“I hope people who come to see these works get a realization of the richness of the historical past, and the sheer enjoyment of taking a peek into the world of this very interesting Nebraska community. Appreciation of John Johnson, the photographer, his assistants, and the technology and skill he employed should also be readily apparent.”
The story of how Keister came across the glass negatives and the eventual confirmation that they were indeed historical artifacts spans some 30 years.
When Keister was a junior at Lincoln Southeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1965 he acquired the negatives from a friend who had purchased them at a yard sale. He used the negatives to make some of his first prints in a darkroom he constructed in his parents’ basement.
Three years later he went off to California to pursue a career in photography. The glass negatives were put in boxes and stored away for over thirty years.
In 1999, a student in Lincoln who was doing research on African American-owned businesses discovered 36 glass negatives in someone’s closet in Lincoln and the story of this “significant find” ran in the Lincoln paper. Keister’s mother saw the story and sent him the clipping. He contacted the Nebraska State Historical Society and soon after his 280 negative collection was deemed a State Treasure.
Since that time there have been a number of newspaper and magazine articles about the collection
In addition to the exhibition of works in the Humanities Center Gallery, there will be a glass case with some materials that show up in the images displayed, as well as a camera similar to the one that was used in the creation of the images.
Keister, who now lives in Chico, is looking forward to the exhibit. He will give a talk prior to an opening reception at the gallery on Feb. 7 at 5 p.m.; a presentation by Ed Zimmer, Historic Preservation Planner for the Lincoln/Lancaster Planning Department, takes place Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. in Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall.
The exhibition and all events associated with it are free and open to the public.
The Humanities Center Gallery is located in Trinity Hall (the “bell tower” building) and will be open during the exhibition Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Black and White in Black and White is part of Black History Month activities taking place at CSU, Chico. Sponsors for the exhibition include The Office of the President, The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, The Office of the Dean-College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and The Humanities Center.
Keister has put a web site online with examples of some of the photos that will be displayed; it is at http://bit.ly/y0vjTc. A YouTube video by Keister with more information on these historical photos can be found at http://bit.ly/uuWBnn.
For more information, please contact Zimbelman at 898-5351.