It was David’s son Michael who first told me about his father and his photographs. At the time, David was living in Florida, so I immediately gave him a call. We met soon after during David’s visit to Michael in San Francisco, and when David began showing me his work, I was blown away by the subject matter and quality of his images. Born in 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, David first came to San Francisco when he shipped out with the U.S. Navy during World War II. He returned in 1946, becoming a photography pioneer by being the first African American student in Ansel Adams’s photographic class at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), as well as studying with renowned photographers Minor White and Imogen Cunningham. David later had a photography studio in The Fillmore, and his work has appeared in many exhibitions. David still resides in the Bay Area and as he enters his 90s, he continues to capture images. He and his wife Jacqueline Annette Sue recently published “A Dream Begun So Long Ago,” a book featuring David images and life story, and a documentary has been made about his life. More can be found on his website: www.davidsjohnsonphotography.com
LISTEN TO INTERVIEW
Harlem of the West SF Project
Interview: David Johnson
Interviewer: Elizabeth Pepin Silva
Copyright 2017, Elizabeth Pepin Silva/ Harlem of the West SF Project
Please contact the Harlem of the West SF Project if you would like to use any part of the interview. Use is free, but the Harlem of the West SF Project must be credited. The entire interview may not be reproduced.
Copyright 2017, Elizabeth Pepin Silva/ Harlem of the West SF Project Please contact the Harlem of the West SF Project if you would like to use any part of the interview. Use is free, but the Harlem of the West SF Project must be credited. The entire interview may not be reproduced.
INTERVIEW BEGINS AT DAVID JOHNSON’S HOME IN THE HAIGHT-ASHBURY DISTRICT OF SAN FRANCISCO, CA.
ELIZABETH PEPIN SILVA: So this first photo, do you know who any of these people are? This is photo number one.
ELIZABETH PEPIN SILVA: Please say your name.
DAVID JOHNSON: This is David Johnson, and I’m being interviewed for the, the jazz musicians book on the Fillmore District. But I think I should talk a little bit about long before I ever heard that there was a Fillmore. And it goes back somewhat to my childhood. When I was in high school, I was very interested in music, but my foster parent, not a formal foster parent, but the lady who raised me, Alice Johnson. I take her name from her common-law husband, I’m pretty sure they weren’t married. But that piece of it is not important. Uh, she didn't like, she didn't exactly appreciate music practice in her house, it annoyed her. She said, “You know, you need to do something else, I don't like that noise in here.” So uh, I took that to mean that I wouldn’t be able to practice in her house. And then uh, a little contest came into my life. I’m not sure the origin of how I got it, but you would sell the, you would sell the little piece to someone who would take a little…you take a little name from this little card, and at some point, one of those little pieces would have a prize in it. And the prize was, I think, a camera, I’m not sure. But I’m sure that I got a camera out of it. And then I started snapping around and….
EPS: How old were you?
DAVID JOHNSON: I was probably about 12 years old. I started snapping pictures around and uh, when I started seeing the results, I got somewhat fascinated with this.
EPS: Where did you grow up?
DAVID JOHNSON: I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. This would be Jacksonville, Florida, around 1930, I guess. It was really around the Depression time.
EPS: What’s your birthday?
DAVID JOHNSON: Eight – three – twenty-six. So I’ll be 77 next month, on August the 3rd. So it was from that experience with this very little camera that I started getting these black and white photographs done. Then I became fascinated with an image of sorts. So my interest in music was still there, but at least I had a hobby that didn't create any noise (LAUGHS).
EPS: What instrument were you playing?
DAVID JOHNSON: Oh, I was playing, I was playing the trumpet initially. And then I played the uh, the uh, I think it was a, I’m not sure the name of that other instrument. It looked like a tuba but very, very small. Much smaller than a tuba. It had the same design. I don’t know what the name of it was, and I don't know how I got it…I mean, that horn as opposed to the trumpet.
Well, the trumpet kept breaking all the time, and I had to get it fixed. So uh, we didn't have that kind of money to get it fixed, so the school loaned me this other little instrument, which I would play in the school band. 'Cos I was not athletic and I, I wasn't interested in that, but I always found I was interested in, in what I would describe now as the creative process. I was interested in reading and literature, and I was very good at that, and less skillful in uh, the technical stuff, the science courses. And I did a little bit of the shop. But it was always the kind of creative part of my life which was beginning to emerge, which I didn't recognize as such, but I knew it was affecting me by the choices I made.
So I got this little camera now and I’m getting fascinated by it, and I went downtown to a, a hock shop. And I think it was five dollars, and five dollars was a lot of money in those days. I don't know where I got the money from, but I bought this camera. And my son, Michael, still has this camera. It’s an Eastman folding camera, and it took a fairly large image, the size of a postcard, since we didn't have enlargers in those days. If they did, I wasn’t aware of it. So the summer of 1944, I went to New York City and to Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. first. And we had some relatives there.
EPS: You went with your family? (00:04:19)
DAVID JOHNSON: No, I didn't go with my family. I had…it’s getting to be the beginning of the war now, right? And I’m working at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. That’s what they call a mechanic learner. Teenagers from high schools could go there and work in the war effort. And it was through that job that I had enough money to take a real vacation -- the first real vacation I’ve ever taken in my life. So I went to Washington, D.C. 'cos I had some cousins there. And while in Washington, D.C. they let me stay there, but they didn't pay much attention to me because I’m a little hick guy from the, down South and they are middle class Negroes they thought, living in Washington, D.C. In a very segregated community, but they sort of pushed me aside, you know, they didn't want to.
EPS: You’re the country kid and they are the city guys?
DAVID JOHNSON: That’s right. So what did I do with that time? They saw I had a camera, and said, “you want to go take pictures of the buildings in uh, Washington, D.C. we’d be happy to drop you off.” So they did. And I roamed around Washington and I took photographs of the uh, Washington Monument and Monticello, and I took pictures of the capital, and seemed that those things interested me.
So uh, after spending maybe a week in Washington, D.C. a colleague of mine that I’d worked with in Jacksonville was visiting her dad in New York. He lived in Harlem. So I was invited to meet her in Harlem, so I met her in Harlem, and we spent the weekend in Harlem. And I remember distinctively photographing the Chrysler Building, I still have the negative, as I didn't understand parallel lines, but I’m fooling with this camera, and the Chrysler obviously it leaning, so I got to get that. But it was a nice shot. So maybe I had a sense of, of composition, which I was yet to understand. So we kind of roamed through Harlem and I took a picture here and a picture there, but that’s the only negative that I still have, and that’s a long time ago. And the negative is still printable. It’s still printable.
00:06:29 So upon my return to uh, to fall of ’44, I gave a travelogue to my class, and I showed them all these black and white pictures that I had taken, and my girlfriend at that time worked for a photographer. Some finishing place. So she brought, she took, she had the prints made, and I shared them with my classmates and my first political (LAUGHS) uh, job was I was elected president of the class. And I’m sure my travelogue impressed them.
So now it’s getting toward the war and I’ve already registered for the draft. And I had no idea that the war would last long enough that I would be so affected. So while all this is going on, the FBI had sent a letter to my house, which I, I missed. Telling me to show up for the induction at some point in time. So my mother or, who couldn’t read or write by the way, my foster mother. Uh, I don't know what she did with the letter, but the FBI shows up at the house and said, you don't be there at a certain time, we’re gonna come and take you. So uh, I went and uh, I was inducted into the Navy. And I had not finished high school, and at that time you could be, you could go into the Navy, you could go into the service in your last year of high school, and then when your time of your graduation came, they automatically gave you your, your uh, your graduation certificate, which I got.
So I went to Maryland for my boot training, and then I came back to Jacksonville. And then I took off to where I was gonna be trained. And it turned out after returning to Maryland and getting on the troop train and I know where I was going, I ended up in San Francisco. San Francisco. I remember this very well, because we got off the train and the buses took us to Tanforan.
EPS: That’s a race track? (00:08:30)
DAVID JOHNSON: The race track. The races had ended and they were using, the Navy was using Tanforan as a training center for their troops who were going to go overseas. And I had no idea whether I’d end up on a ship or whether I would be on land. And that information wasn’t known to me at that time. So I can remember being on liberty after maybe being there four weeks in training. And then I uh, I left, and somehow I wasn’t connected with anybody, I came by myself on a Greyhound bus. And I ended up on 7th Street, near Market where the Greyhound bus station was for many, many years. Until not too many years ago, they tore it down and built other buildings.
And what was interesting about my first liberty, when I got over on Market Street, I asked someone where are the black people? I may have said Negroes, because black people was not a political correct in those days. Call somebody Black you’d have a fight on. So this gentleman told me, and I remember this very well, he says, you get on the B car, and you tell them to put you off on Fillmore. Fillmore and Geary. I had never heard of Fillmore before. So I landed on Fillmore and Geary Street, the very same spot that I was later, much, much later in my life, photograph. So I got off at Fillmore and Geary, and I walked up and down the street. The streets were very crowded. Oh, people were hustling and trying to run a game on you and sell you something, 'cos we had money, you know, sailors. I remember one little store where some black guys, you know, you want a girl, I’ll take you to Chinatown, but if you sleep with her, you got to marry her (LAUGHS). But that was not my interest, and I had hardly enough money to sleep with in the first place.
There were lots of bars open, and the streets were crowed with hookers and, and pimps, and everybody had a little game, you know, to run on you, because we were targets. And I remember coming to San Francisco, in my dress blues, thinking I wouldn’t need a pea coat. And after freezing to death a few times, I always brought my pea coat with me. (LAUGHS) And uh, I, I didn't go to the bars 'cos I wasn’t, I didn't drink and you know mostly walked the street, you know?
EPS: How old were you? (00:10:51)
DAVID JOHNSON: I was uh, 17 years old. They drafted me when I was 17. My birthday, yeah, 'cos I was 17, I believe, August, 1944, I think it works out that way. With…ok.
So I spent about maybe, let’s say 12 weeks in San Francisco, and I found a church, my family always took me to church, and you always meet people at church. I found a church in Fillmore, on O’Farrell Street between Fillmore and Webster. And it was that little church that I met some people that I was later to come back and be involved with. And not knowing at that time. I’m leaving San Francisco after my training at Tanforan, but I’m leaving with a kind of eerie feeling about San Francisco, because I remember San Francisco from the, from the movie you know, the earthquake and with Clark Gable and somebody else was in that. And I kind of remembered San Francisco, but I had never read very much about San Francisco in the history books when I was going to school. A lot of stuff they didn't teach us.
So I’m headed overseas now, and we stop in Honolulu and visited Pearl Harbor, and the next stop was the Philippine Islands, ok? I didn't know what was gonna happen in the Philippine Islands because this is pre-atom bomb falling on Japan. But I do remember they had secured that part of the Philippines, but I went, I was on a little island called Somali was the island, the central isle of the Philippines and the little town was called Gewahan (?). And I’m there, and, and uh, assigned to a Black unit. And I have to add that in the Navy at that time, African American and Filipinos were assigned to what they were called a steward’s department. We were not allowed to have other skills to use. Now mind you, I had been a mechanic learner in Jacksonville before I came in the Navy, working on airplanes (CLEARS THROAT) that was not available to me.
00:13:03 So after we got there and got out of the unit we all went some place. You new guys are here, we’re gonna give you a job. So people would, the jobs came up. Who wants to work as a cook? Hands went up. Who wants to work as a baker? Hands went up. Who wants to be uh, I don't know what they call it, but a valet to an officer? What really means that you were servant to a commissioned officer. Shine his shoes, polish his brass and all that. But somehow my mentality rejected that. So I waited and waited. So finally they said, well, we got a few jobs left for those who are not assigned. Who would like to be a bartender? I raised my hand. I didn't drink. But it was good. I worked, I only served the officers uh, during their recreation, so I got to know them. They were pretty cool guys. And I got to learn how to mix drinks and that sort of thing.
And now, it’s about the time when the atom bomb fell. Okay, and oh, what are we gonna do now? The war is over, and they signed the peace agreement. People started coming home. And the captain of the base that we were on was very fond of the bugle corps. He was a former music conductor. So they put it, had a little newsletter out, anybody who could play a bugle should come out for this audition. I remember that I had played the trumpet, ok? And there were no blacks in the bugle corps. So I showed up, because the bugle corps is being decimated because the troops are going home now. People with the highest points were leaving. So it was an opportunity for me. So I, I sort of fumbled through the audition, but I got in the bugle corps (LAUGHS). Never did play Taps. I’m glad they didn't ask me that, because I couldn’t have gotten through that. So every morning we’d get up and go down and, and you know, blow the bugles and, and uh, raise the uh, colors. And the rest of the day I’m free. I could roam around, you know, the town, and do whatever…
EPS: Is this still in the Philippines? (00:15:06)
DAVID JOHNSON: Still in the Philippines, I could do whatever I wanted to do. 'Cos it’s not yet my time to come home. I don't have enough points. So now the bugle corps is being decimated. We don’t have any, enough troops left for the bugle corps. So we’re getting assigned other things. So I got assigned to work as a shore patrol. A cop in the little town. Now if you notice even though this is a segregated Navy at that time, I managed to weave myself through jobs that I never was anything of servitude. It was clear to me I didn't want to do it. I was bad enough to be insulted that I got a skill I could help the war. I didn't have any feelings about the war then, I have it now. I’m glad they didn't put me over there shooting somebody (LAUGHS). But looking back years uh, after I had some experience.
So after a while, it’s time for me to come home. So I arrive in San Francisco, Treasure Island, and the German war prisoners are still there. And they were serving us. Very arrogant, you know, it’s cold, they’re all out there with no shirts on and flexing their muscles, and I was kind of feeling, feeling like these guys are white and look like they, they’re treated better than we are. And they’re, they were supposed to be the enemy. Ok? 'Cos we had, still had to live in segregated situations. So came time for me to leave Treasure Island now. And go to oh, by the way. Having arrived back in San Francisco, I was able to visit some of the people that I had met.
EPS: Back in the Fillmore?
DAVID JOHNSON: Back in the Fillmore, back to the church that I had attended. And uh, I knew I saw some of the people that I’d been away for about a year, they were still here, ok? And so after a short, I don't know how long, it was a short period of time uh, I am sent to Charleston, South Carolina.
EPS: Still in the Navy? (00:17:01)
DAVID JOHNSON: Still in the Navy. The most racist town in the Navy, because the petty officer would call your name, David Johnson, colored boy. Because the whole idea they think is you call all Black people’s name and they don't answer, act like you didn't hear them. well, I said, I’ll never go to Charleston again and I never have. I’m sure Charleston’s changed by now.
So now I’m returning to Jacksonville, having been discharged from the Navy, and I go back to work for the Navy, 'cos the Navy base is still there. And I said to my foster mother, you know, uh, I don't, I don't think I’d be comfortable living in this house now. Let’s get in the public housing. That seemed like a step up (EPS: Right.) No, she didn't want to go to public housing, it was too cold for her. She had a lot of things that you know, she grew up with. And living in that house uh, in this Black neighborhood with no paved streets, none of that stuff, I uh, keep thinking uh, what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with myself. I’m interested in photography. It was already clear in my mind that that’s what I wanted to be, so my career choice was made uh, when I was a teenager, actually. It was nothing else that, that excited me as this magic of getting a picture out of a little box. That’s the only thing.
EPS: Did you shoot photos at all when you were in the Navy? (00:18:25)
DAVID JOHNSON: No. No, I didn't have a camera. But I, I had the interest there. And my, my mind was when I returned the GI Bill, I would study photography, not in Jacksonville, was not available. I was looking at the New York Institute of Photography. And it’s interesting now the little money I had where I spent it. I was subscribed to the Popular Photography, Popular Photography was published in those days. Ok. So I’m thinking about it, well, uh, how am I gonna get out of Jacksonville and go study photography? And also I was pretty frugal. All my money that I made in the Navy I let ride on the books, and I sold cigarettes and Bacardi and all that stuff for my negatives. So, so I’m thinking uh, how this is gonna work now. It’s clear my, my uh, foster parent wants to, will remain in Jacksonville. My girlfriend already had ideas about getting married, and of course I was not ready to make that kind of decision. It wouldn’t have been a bad decision, though. She was a really fine person. But I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment in my life. I wanted to get an education.
Now I have an opportunity to get an education, so it was blessing, if you can think of it that way, of having gone into service at the tail end of the war. I was eligible for the GI Bill, ok? Now, while browsing through my Popular Photography Magazine, I saw a little section there, Ansel Adams is setting up the Department of Photography at the California School of Fine Arts. Ah ha. San Francisco, photography. I want to go back to San Francisco anyway. I wrote Ansel Adams. And he answered me, and uh, I think in my first letter I made it clear that I was a Negro. Even San Francisco, I don't want to come all this way and they didn't know who I was. What I was. And I was always up and your decisions were made around race, and still is to, to a certain extent. So Ansel Adams answered me right away, sent me a telegram. And he says, “You know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Negro or what. If you want to study photography here, that’s fine.”
I believe I probably was the only African American who wrote Ansel Adams to go to school. And I didn't write it on the bases of Ansel Adams. I knew nothing about Ansel Adams. Never heard of him. But I knew the school was in San Francisco, and that was good enough for me. And I knew I wanted to study photography. And I had no idea what I was gonna go study, portrait photography, commercial photography, what. I didn’t know photography had that many branches. It probably didn't in those days. Uh, so.
EPS: But why San Francisco of all the places you could have chosen? (00:21:12)
DAVID JOHNSON: Because I had been here. I enjoyed it and I had made some friends here. And I just loved The City. The City, it was kind of an epiphany if you can describe it that way, that it happened, through I didn't understand then. My whole feeling at that time was wow. And the other thing was I could apply to the Navy to get a year’s leave of absence, educational leave. So I was smart enough to to ask. They say yeah, you can go. You can go when you, if you don't like it, you can come back to your job. Because everybody thought, this Navy base is gonna be here forever. Obviously it would be. But it was gonna be there long enough for me to come to San Francisco and decide I can’t hack it here.
So anyway, everything was falling into place. I got my educational leave, I had some money. And uh, nobody was telling me what to do, I didn't have to report to anybody. I’m an adult now. So I said to my mom, I’ll see you later. I’m going to San Francisco. So I hopped on this segregated train out of a depot in Jacksonville, and I headed for San Francisco.
So now I had written to, to Ansel. Ansel wrote back to me and said, “A gentleman named Minor White will meet you when you arrive in San Francisco. And I’ve talked to him and you can live at the house until you find a place to live.” I’m sure they had talked about this. And I think they were just excited a Black was gonna come all three thousand miles to be in this school. There were lots of people trying to get into the school, a lot of guys who were officers and they were into photography, and they knew about Ansel and I didn't.
So I arrived in San Francisco August the 27th, 1946. And Minor White met me and we took the B car all the way out to Sea Cliff, and I walked into 121 24th Street. And one of my portraits now is uh, Johnny Bradshaw is standing in front of Ansel, I don’t know if you saw that portrait, I’ll show it to you again. I was later today (?)
So uh, Minor said, ok. And let me live in his house with Ruth Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, and a man named Finkle, Finkle and his wife, who were gonna be the lab chiefs. So everyone living in that house is somehow gonna be… will go to the school. And I didn't, I never knew how Ruth Marion Baruch got there, but she had known about Ansel. Pirkle Jones knew about Ansel. Everybody in the house knew about Ansel’s background but me. I was brand new. I’m just here to study photography.
(00:24:09) So now I’ve got a little money, but it’s not, I’m gonna need a new camera, you’re gonna need a tripod, you’re gonna need a western light meter. I don't know how I got it, but finally, by the time going to school, the equipment was there. I think some people donated things to me. Ansel, I mean, Minor White, who was to become my tutor. He was to become my trusted friend, and really who, who would be the person who would encourage me to remain in the school. And who would also cause a minor crisis in my life before I got out of school, which I’ll address later.
So I remember this day we were all get on the bus or car or something, and we go to 800 Chestnut Street. And I’m sitting in this room all these people. Now my association with white people had changed dramatically here, 'cos I would never be sitting in a room in 1944 with a group of white students. It would not have happened in San Francisco, I mean, in Jacksonville, Florida or anywhere in the South. So this was a brand new experience for me. And it was also uh, a kind of culture shock to me. And I felt totally unprepared for this. I felt uh, a sense of inferiority complex, and I kept thinking how you gonna manage it, the language they were using, when they start looking at photographs. Say, oh, this has a, I like the mood of this photograph or you know, the kind of terms that I was familiar with. Oh, the composition is striking, or I’m struck by this, and I’m looking around. I never heard any of these words before. In high school, my vocabulary I didn't know what they were talking about.
EPS: Did they accept you?
DAVID JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, yeah, they accepted me. I mean, I was, you could be accepted when you’re, they’re not enough of you to be a threat or to be competition. And I was the youngest person in the class.
So that’s how my, my schooling began at the California School of Fine Arts. It’s a large studio that I would visit many times, and then we had large darkroom so we went down there during this period of time, and he introduced us to the dark room and the chemicals, and we mixed our own chemicals in those days. And there was the uh, if you look at the drug dealers now with their little measuring system, we used those same kind. The metric system I never heard of, and I learned to use the metric system, and Ansel had his own battery of uh, formulas – chemical formulas. B-23 and all of that stuff.
EPS: What was it like the first time you met Ansel? How did you find him? (00:26:50)
DAVID JOHNSON: Well, uh, I find him a very formal…imposing figure. 'Cos Ansel was very theatrical. He would walk in the room and there would be nobody in the room but him. He’d pull on his beard and he’d had all of these dramatic moves like, like uh, I’ve something to tell you and, and the way he delivered his message I mean, sometimes he’d get very serious about it. And we finally met and I shaked his hand, I said, “I’m David Johnson.” He said, “That’s great. Glad to have you here.” It’s a mixed class. So that was reassuring. Meeting Ansel and getting to know some people in the class that I still know. Most of them are dead, but I still know, and photographed at least one guy. And our families grew up together.
So Ansel was really not there a lot. He would come in periodically, 'cos he was really this symbolic figure to get the school set up. It was his reputation and his dream was to have that school have a school of photography. As he did a previous thing for Smithsonian and places like that.
And uh, so I have a kind of advantage over some of the other people 'cos I’m one of the folk who are living at the house. And my work after the uh, school work I worked in Ansel Adam’s dark room. In fact, one point in time, I’m in the dark room while Ansel Adams is making a print. And we, we made a comment, 'cos he always said I’m a purist. So Ansel is making this huge enlargement, and he goes over to his developer and he gets a little chemical and he goes over to his, no, when he, when the print is being developed, he gets some extra chemicals and he rubs it. And I said, I thought you were a purist. He says, well, not an absolute purist (LAUGHS). So that really stuck to my. So we had a great time in, in the dark room. He was showing me different little things to do.
Now it’s, as far as my personal life was concerned, it’s time to find me a place outside in the Black community. It was clear that this wasn’t going to last. So I look in the paper and I, people would, it was accepted that we all were not gonna live there indefinitely. So, but Minor lived there. That was Minor’s house. That was part of the arrangement when he got hired. And Ruth, I don't know how Ruth finally got out of the house, but I was the first to go. And I started looking around through the people in the church, I found a, a room in on Divisadero Street in, in the public housing. It was a minister there. The Reverend Alistair who was to become my main uh, (CLEARS THROAT) model. So he, he gladly would modeling for me. I’m taking this portraits of him and stuff like that.
So when I moved from the house, uh, I started going down to School of Fine Arts, and uh, somehow uh, Minor knew that I was running out of money. So he said to me uh, you can come over to the house on weekends, and I’ll, I’ll teach you some things…you can do some things around the house. But he really would take, he was giving me private lessons, really. So as a result of those session with, with Minor, I became an excellent printer. I mean, I can really print. During the day I’m in the dark room for a while, I can reduce a really powerful uh, black and white image. Black and white print. And skill started putting me on the map I did it right away. But Western Meter took a little time because I didn't know that much about math. And Minor, I mean, Ansel tied the Western Meter into his zone system. Zone One, total black, and then in Zone 8 which was the white, but it had quite a little detail. So he taught us how to do that. How you uh, expose for the, expose for the blacks and (?) for whites. That’s what he taught us. And his portfolio was around there for sale for maybe a hundred bucks or something. But we didn’t have a hundred dollars (LAUGHS) we were GI’s, you know, fresh out of the service.
So this went on for a whole year. My first year. Now something occurred during that year. On one particular field trip that Minor and I went on, we were out at Sea Cliff, and I still got the photograph we took out, out there. And it looked like nothing was right that day because he seemed in emotional turmoil. And I’m getting kind of uncomfortable being with him on a Saturday 'cos I’m, my sense is something is going on in the relationship which I didn't fully understand. And I can remember distinctively, he wanted to form…he was into things called equivalencies. That’s his big thing. The photograph didn't mean the photograph, it was the equivalent of something, some emotional experience. So I’m not comfortable with being the model for that sort of thing.
(00:31:49) So I remember this particular Saturday, we got back to the dark room. Normally I would developing the negatives. You know, we’d take them out of the 4x5 slide and we’d load them in the holders and the chemicals are…you know, you do the agitation and you go through the developer, the short stop and the hypo.
But this day uh, Minor was developing pictures, and I’m just standing aside, watching him. And he sees that, you know, David, I know you’re very religious. I didn't think I was that religious, but he thought I was. And uh, maybe there’s some things in life you don't agree with. He says, but some of us have to walk down the forbidden paths of life. It’s interesting a gay person their perception of where they stood in the society. (EPS: Right, right.) To be gay you’re walking down 'cos society didn't smile upon that.
EPS: Especially at that time.
DAVID JOHNSON: At that time, yeah, we’re, even in San Francisco that was later the Castro. So Minor uh, walks over to me and attempt to embrace me, so I pushed him away. And from that point on, I just didn't want to go there any more. I wasn’t, you know, it was upsetting to me. And then uh, I started making plans to leave the school. So in the summer of 194….
EPS: Due to that incident? (00:33:07)
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, and generally it was the people in the class began, began to observe that he was paying a lot of attention to me, and was focused on me. (CLEARS THROAT) it was not all about his interest in me sexually, but I think he genuinely wanted to give me as much knowledge as, as I possibly could get.
So somewhere along that time, one of the benefactors of the school in Bennett College for Women, North Carolina, I think. It was man who was a lumberman, he had an office down on Post Street. Was talking to the people at the school, an all-Black school for women. Somehow, he may have told them that he knew Ansel Adams and he could probably get somebody to come and teach photography. So Ansel approached him, and Minor approached him and said, “You know, this is the guy who could do it for you.” I was totally not ready for that. I wasn’t ready for that. And the guy kind of -- he’s trying to teach me all. You know, I’m a product of a segregated education and you know? But I’m intelligent enough to understand what’s going on, well not, I was not academically prepared. I had barely finished… (STUMBLE) that was my first schooling after high school. I wasn’t ready for that. So he’s gonna make me ready.
So we got into a little, again, I’m uncomfortable with Ansel and photo school about it. “Why did I even leave Florida?” You know, I had those thoughts. And where does anybody make any money, being, I don't see any Black folk around making money doing photography. What am I going to do? And the type of photography I’m teaching here I mean being taught here, it’s like studying classical music. You’ve got to go out and play, play in a honkey tonk, which a lot of classical musicians did. So these are the issues that, that’s beginning to confront me.
So I went to Mt. Zion hospital and I got a job. The lady over there at the Jewish hospital. Mrs. Richter, I’ll never forget her. She was so impressed that here’s this Black kid studying photography. She gave me a job right away in the kitchen. Ok. And I worked there and that’s when I met people like Terry Francois, Jamie Kennedy. It was the early leadership of African Americans beginning to emerge in this city. 'Cos they were not educated. Everybody was from some place else.
So I’m meeting people like that, but meanwhile I, I’ve learned enough photography now that people are discovering, I’m meeting people who are interested in photographing the Black community. So I met a man named Ed Howden. I’ll never forget him. Uh, an organization called A Council for Civic Unity, one of the earlier interracial organizations. Where they were trying to improve the lot of Black people in San Francisco. Well, there were plenty of jobs, people were maids and butlers, and the menial jobs were not uh, were the only jobs offered to Black people.
EPS: Did blacks have it as hard as in the south? (00:36:24)
DAVID JOHNSON: It was worse than in the south in many ways.
DAVID JOHNSON: Because it was more obviously and, and you knew where you stood in the south. Here, uh, San Francisco they wanted to have this façade that it was a liberal city. And they’d always point to those guys down South. Those are the bigots and all. But they were the worst bigots here because they were hiding behind, you know, city laws were out there. So (CLEARS THROAT) the night I’m photographing and meeting Mr. Howden, and he said, “Have you photographed the Fillmore?” I said, “Where’s the Fillmore?” He said, “Where do you live? I told him where, he said, “You live in the Fillmore. And there are a lot of social problems there.”
EPS: Where did you live?
DAVID JOHNSON: Between Sutter and, and Bush. I lived right in that block. I was to return to that block later, that, that neighborhood, that would be significant in my photographic life. So now I have this very large camera, and I’m going down, starting to photograph the Fillmore. So some of the, I don’t have all the negatives, but a few of my negatives I still have. The Dog House image. The man on the skateboard. I’m beginning to do what I, I don't perceive as uh, documentary photography. They were subjects in my home. The Fillmore, or my environment that I was attracted to.
EPS: What year was this?
DAVID JOHNSON: Forty-six, forty-seven. Remember I came to school in ’46, so I, I’ve got enough skills now about 1947.
EPS: And are you still attending classes? Or did you drop out? (00:38:03)
DAVID JOHNSON: Still attending classes. Still attending classes. The little boy sitting on the steps is probably one f my first portraits that was an environmental portrait. And the little boy was, I knew him, his family attended the church that I attended. So having met Mr. Howden and begin to talk about the social issues in San Francisco, I began to make the connection. That the photographs I’m taking in the slum housing has a direct relationship with, where Black people live.
And that uh, somewhere along the way I got uh, to know the Sun Reporter. And that newspaper was just emerging. And I became the staff photographer for that. So some of the photographs that I took, Eartha Kitt and (?) uh, as a result of going out on assignment for them. So about 1950 uh, I married while staying at or living at uh, working at, at Mount Zion.
EPS: Is that where you met your wife? (00:39:12)
DAVID JOHNSON: That’s where I met my wife – in Mount Zion Hospital. And uh, she worked in the kitchen, you know, these people (?) where people we got to know. Got to know them.
And I got to know the church people over at Jones Methodist Church, that’s where I met Jamie Kennedy. That’s where I met Willie Brown -- and photographed Willie Brown. He was starring in… I think he was always a thespian and Willie Brown had some girlfriend, I don’t know whatever happened her. Willie Brown is this handsome man, Black guy, with these glasses on, and he has the leading role in some church play. And I’m the only photographer around, so they sent me to....
EPS: When you were in school?
DAVID JOHNSON: This is later when I had the studio and I was getting introduced to the Black community at a time when I’m meeting people who are later to take leadership, to be part of that. ‘Cos prior to that there were a few ministers around, a few doctors around – the so-called leaders.
So a critical point in terms of the school. I don’t want to pass over that, after this, this issue around going in to teach, that we finally got rid of that. And then the summer came and I, I said I was through with it, and he asked me if I was going back. Minor noticed that I had not registered for school. So he looked me up. He says I notice you haven’t registered for school. No, I don't want to go back. So he went back to this little incident we had and he says, “I know that affected you and I don't want that to happen. I’m interested in your completing your education here.”
He was very persuasive. I said, “You’re right, I’ll go back.” So then there was a question of money. You know who’s gonna pay my tuition. I went back. And 1949, I finished. Ok.
Meanwhile, ’46, ’47, ’48, ’49, and from then on, I photographed the Fillmore extensively. I met some social groups and I photographed them. In those days they had these social clubs. The Twentieth Century Club, the Sweethearts and whatever. And uh, the most of my work now is still with the large format camera. So now uh, I can see that I’m handicapped by certain things. Can’t go inside with a 4x5 camera, even though I did. I went (LAUGHS) to Oakland and I got this huge 4x5 camera and setting up floodlights, trying to photograph these social people. And I remember one lady came up to me and she was so impressed. She says, I, I notice you’re a professional. (phone rings and David says he’s not going to answer it) Because uh, of this tripod. Ok. And I’m limited by what I can do because now we’re relying on a flash when you want to photograph inside. So I learned how to do open flash. I don't have synchronization so you just open the lens, pop the flash and close it. And I got, I knew how to develop it, so I always got a good negative. There were some good negatives. So a lot of my inside stuff at that time would be open flash. Ok.
And Adolph Gaston was located on Maiden Lane in those days. If you wanted your camera repaired, you took it to Adolph Gasser. The same Gasser as down on 2nd. (EPS: right, right.) Got to know Adolph Gasser in that time.
EPS: The actual guy? (00:42:51)
DAVID JOHNSON: I got to see the actual guy. I was kind of staying there… he, he remembered me years later. 'Cos I can take him back to, remember those days. He’s very skillful. He knew how to take the, the lens on a view camera and synchronize it so it can use flash. So now I’m learning to use flash, the highland flash. Synchronized. And that kind of stuff. This predates the electronic flash. No electronic flash. We bought those huge flash thrower, 'cos the flash thrower was a 22. and a twenty-two would fill an auditorium.
EPS: That’s kind of cool.
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah. I packed a lot of lines.
So I’m beginning to make a little money taking photographs. You know, people want their babies taken, they want their weddings taken. So it’s clear that now that this, this smaller cameras available, 35’s were no-no. It was too grainy, and, you know, just, you didn't go there. You’d look down on it. Photographing with a 35? But there were people around that they liked that sort of thing. They got some of the other 35mm cameras…
EPS: A Roleflex?
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, Roleflex. So that’s what I had on my first camera is uh, is a Syraflex, made in Japan. A Roleflex was made in Germany. And that’s when I really started photographing on the streets, that type, and inside, 'cos I had the capability of a smaller camera. And roll film. Roll film. So now I’m beginning to do that type of thing.
And then uh, after school, I went to work in the post office. Post office. About the year I left school. The Rincon Annex post office, somehow that was, they needed people there. And I went down took the test. And I thought I’d flunked. I wouldn’t even, I passed it by one point and with my GI 5%, they gave the veteran, I was in. So I started working at the post office.
The people asked me photograph this, and photograph that. Ok. It was a nice deal, because every baby I was right there to collect my money, yeah. Now I’m not terribly interested in any uh, I had totally left the whole Ansel Adams, Minor genre. And I would not be going down to the beach photograph dead birds on the beach. I’m not into that sort of thing or the mountains, because you know, I’m very much involved in photographing people. And I’m getting good at it. And people are, are paying me for my work. So finally it’s paying off. But I didn't leave my day (LAUGHS) I didn’t leave my day job.
So I’m married now, and uh, Douglas is born, and we have two, a couple of kids, and Lucy and I moved to public housing. Out in uh, Hunter’s Point, what they call Double Up. Where they eventually built uh, Candlestick.
So I was thinking about, well, it would be nice to have a studio, and I figured that was totally beyond me. Where am I gonna get the money to have a studio? It seemed like a big thing. But there was a guy on the radio called Ben Sweetland, and Ben Sweetland was one of these motivational speakers. I didn't know about motivation, but its -- if you can if you think you can. Uh, how uh, to do aspirations, to put pictures up and you know, I started doing it. And Lucy encouraged me to, to take his class. You know, and it was a guy name of Horsetrader Ed on, on Van Ness Avenue.
EPS: Right. Car dealer. (00:46:29)
DAVID JOHNSON: Right! Horsetrader Ed sponsored a, a Ben Sweetland. And I remember one evening, Horsetrader Ed came to the uh, class. And I asked him, I says, “Is it true you never pass up a deal?” He said, “it depends on the deal.” He was kind of funny. and here I am with a small camera and I’m photographing Ben Sweetland. And I didn't know about you got to have more light, back fill. But he was interested in knowing how he looked. And I never could produce anything for him. So uh, it wasn’t long after I took the class that Lucy and I decided (Audio cuts out)
DAVID JOHNSON: (Audio returns) One block from where I had been first came here. This is the 1800 block of the Divisadero Street, between Pine and Bush. There was an Armenian guy there, Mr. Saroyan. I walked in his place. I said, “Mr. Saroyan uh, you got a store front here.” He said, “Yeah.” And I said, “May I see it?”
It was a storefront, and then back was a 3-bedroom apartment. Perfect. We only got one child now, Douglas. So we, we took it. And uh, I’m working the post office, so I’ve got a little money, and Lucy’s working as night operator. And I had a dark room built there. And the front part I painted a gray from Sears-Roebuck, and created a little uh, reception in the front, put my sign up there, said Johnson Studio. I still go that negative somewhere. Every now and then I, I run across it. So I had to get cards printed, and now I’m in business. The Sun Reporter is sending uh, me clients.
I’m making an awful lot of money that first year I was there. I mean, I made a lot of money. All I did with it, uh, I didn't know anything about managing a studio, buying stuff, and I had my little primitive darkroom.
So I’m working the post office and it’s taking its toll on me, I’m working at night and I’m staying up and I’m doing the studio and it was clear it just wasn’t working. So we closed the studio and moved back to Hunter’s Point.
EPS: When year was this? (00:48:53)
DAVID JOHNSON: Uh, let me see, Douglas is, Douglas was born in 1950, Douglas is about 3 years old, about ’58. About ’58. Yeah, let’s see, I was married in, yeah, about ’55.
EPS: You closed it in ’55?
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, around that time. So I moved up to uh, we moved to uh, the top of the hill, the most beautiful view. Uh, that was the cheap view, the poor person view. Nowadays, any view from a hill is desirable. (EPS: Exactly.) So we stayed there and I continued to, uh, let’s see, I’m trying to figure out what we did. Now we were on Divisadero, and but when the business closed, we moved back in Hunter’s Point, see, and I continued to work in the post office. And uh…
EPS: Did you keep shooting photographs?
DAVID JOHNSON: I kept shooting photographs. The little boy going up the hill with the white wagon? I took it 'cos I was right there in the community and I kept seeing him. I keep seeing this little kid, and I didn't have my camera that day but I had a friend, Alan Lewis, who worked with me many years ago. I used Alan’s camera, I was with Alan one day and we were going up the hill, and I said Alan, there’s this kid I’m looking at, may I use your camera? So I went out and photographed. And I got three images I shot. And that one emerges as the one.
Ok. So now uh, (CLEARS THROAT) I’m working at the post, and then I left it, I left the post office and I went to work for the Navy again. At the same old job I used to work at. That didn't work out because I wanted to go to work for UC Berkeley (?) labs. And I had put Alan Lewis down as my reference. And shouldn’t do that because they were involved in left-wing activities and they didn’t want that on this project. I never got the job.
EPS: Alan Lewis was? (00:51:02)
DAVID JOHNSON: Alan was, yeah. He wasn’t a member of the Communist Party. Any organization that smelled like Communist in those days you in trouble. I never got the job. And then uh, eventually I went back to work in the post office, and then we moved here in 1957. Here (points to his house we are sitting in).
But all against this whole time period from my graduating from the California School of Fine Arts up to this point, I am doing a lot of photography on the side, 'cos I never made a living at it, photographing uh, weddings and, and then some things I just went out on my own and did.
When the ‘60’s came along, that was perfect, because the, that it kind of revived my interest in photography. 'Cos when I started going out on those parades and, and observing the people, it just really powerful images, just like…looked like it was, I was, I felt like I was kind of in the zone. Yeah, it was probably my most productive era in terms of the subject matter I was interested in. You know, the lady with reflection photo…I didn’t…the lady with the man, images like that.
Now along that period of time, I also, in 1963, went to the March on Washington. 'Cos I was in the NAACP. And I photographed some people on the plane, but after we got there, we were about as far from where Martin Luther King was speaking as uh, Divisadero Street.
EPS: From your house here to Divisadero Street? There were that many people? (it’s about a half-mile)
DAVID JOHNSON: That many people. And when we got off of the plane and down on the bus, as we drove in and got, just, you know, debarked from the bus, people were everywhere. And then there was one picture there where they are coming, they’re pouring in from everywhere. I don't know I ever printed that much. It’s when Medgar Evers had just been shot. And there was this little boy. It was…I have enough in the negative where I could make a decent print, and there’s this little kid, and then I just started moving through the crowd I just, and I had, I had Alan’s camera.
Now I’m really photographing with a 35, so I’m just moving through the group. I got about 3 images out of that and I wouldn’t care about is a family standing looking very solemn at what’s going on. Never got close enough to where King was speaking, but we got there before the speech. And after that we all went to hotels and hung out and talked 'til we got ready to go back. But that was kind of a turning point.
EPS: Were you actually having gallery shows at this point? Or just selling photographs to people? (00:53:57)
DAVID JOHNSON: No no no. I was just selling them to people.
And then I got very active in the University of California employee group. The University of California group was a microcosm of all the racism that was going on in the city. And I had been a member of the union in uh, in the post office. And that’s when I met uh, Danny Glover’s family. James Glover.
EPS: He used to work for the post office?
DAVID JOHNSON: That’s right. And while I was president, we used to have lots of parties. We’d have 300 people in this house. And that’s when these are long haired white kids start drifting in, and I said, who are these guys? And we were playing the Beatles in here and having a great time. And uh…I was still in the post office then. Still in the post office. And the Glovers and I, we were very close. So when I tell people I know, I know Danny Glover they’re impressed with this.
So uh, the uh, I never went back to the studio. I did a lot of photographing and portraits right here (points to his house). And I photographed people outside, things that interest me. I was at the University of California and I photographed that. But my whole contribution to the Civil Rights Movement was what I shot in Washington and also the demonstrations down in front of city hall. And I went down to Watts right after the first riots. Just got on a Greyhound bus and spent a weekend down there photographing.
So I’m really kind of after this point, working at U.C and I had kind of put photography aside. And I got all this accumulation of negatives. And that was interesting, 'cos when I had the studio, you accumulate a lot of negatives, and I started tossing them. But something said, to me, you shouldn’t throw your negatives away. So that was something that I appreciated. So I’ve been hauling those negatives around a long time. I had them over in Sausalito I had them in Florida. While I was in Florida uh, I don't know exactly… I met a woman who was uh, of course she was kind of an art consultant.
EPS: Wait, let me stop you for a moment and go back. What made you go back to Florida? (00:56:29)
DAVID JOHNSON: Well, after leaving…uh, I was very political at U.C. And I was responsible for a lot of people getting promotions. Suddenly I’m finding that the people who are sweeping the streets and then they are now managers. And I’m in the, I’m in the personnel department, in a key position here to help people so I knew a lot of things were going on. And then the politics go on. When there is power, somebody wants it.
Ok. So it begins to be kind of internal struggle about who’s gonna get the prize now, you open up all these doors. And of course you expect people to of course we’re gonna promote the guy who was responsible because they walk right over you.
So I’m beginning to experience a change. Affirmative action is in place. I was responsible for a lot of that happening. Because I organized the Black people with organizations on the Black Caucus. Now I had all this experience in the post office, I knew how to organize people. And I was highly respected there and then what was unique about that organization. Normally on campuses it’s student-driven. That was employee and faculty and interested liberals. That’s how we organized it. It was that support we got a lot of changes made. The first Back students to, to get into the medical school that came as a result of our organization. We had a quota. Five percent of every class had to be black. That was the opportune minority, you know, the gay and women issue would come later. So I was kind of proud of that experience up there.
But it’s getting to the point now everything is organized. So the thing, what you brought there is no longer needed. There’s an administrative role. You got a complaint, you file for it. Before we would march in, and say what’s up here? So I became a little discouraged, you know, having personal problems in my life. And I just wanted to get away. So uh, I went over to uh, little houseboat. I had some money. Lucy and I owned our own property. We had fairly extensive property in this neighborhood at one point. The house we didn't buy was this one. That’s the one we should have bought.
EPS: The one we’re in? (00:58:56)
DAVID JOHNSON: Yes. So changes are taking place in my life. I’m not happy any more. I’m just, I feel unfulfilled, so I moved to the houseboat. So that was a big change. You know, everybody wants to come visit on the houseboat. I was the only Black guy there that owned a houseboat, so anybody Black step on the dock, they’d know where they were going, they’d say, “He lives down there.” So that was cool. I got along with all the, the hippie dudes and people who owned boats. And mine was the forerunner of the boats that that were there at that time. The boats you go over there are these fancy, custom built houses. My boat was one of the very first with a concrete bottom. So I stayed there.
I’m getting to the age now where I can take early retirement. So the politics at the University is not my thing. They’re bringing in people uh, above me that I got to report to. Prior to that, I had free run of the place. I was the HNIC as they say. So I’m gonna go there, and then, and then when I knew I could retire and get a little money out of that. And things aren’t the way they were – the cost of living and I can’t afford the houseboat. Can’t pay for it.
So I decided to rent the houseboat, and pack all of my stuff and leave. So I went to New York for a while, and I went down to the Virgin Islands, that didn't work. And then I decided, where’s the nearest city in the United States that (?) Florida. And uh, I had done some work with U.C. with youths, a youth program, and the Florida Department of Children and Families had a grant. They were looking for someone to organize independent living for kids in foster care. 'Cos when they get in their teens, they’re not gonna be in foster care very long, so they try and develop a program where they’d learn some job skills and…so I got on that, 'cos I had worked at U.C’s youth program.
EPS: Is this the same city that you grew up in – Jacksonville? (01:01:00)
DAVID JOHNSON: No, no, it was in Miami. It was in Miami. I had not been to Jacksonville for years. Had no desire to go back.
So it was around that program that I got the job with the Department of Children and Families, which led me to go back to school to get a master’s of social work. I got fascinated about that. I’m 65 years old and I went back to get my master’s. So I worked, I lived there for a while, about 10 years, I think it was. I’d come home every summer, every winter, to this house and see the family. Uh, so I came back because I, it was discovered that I had prostrate cancer, and I had my operation, and I had these fears about do I want my son to come down and bring Dad home, you know? (EPS: Yeah.) You know, I didn't want that. I wanted to come back on my own and be around my family if anything happened to me. 'Cos I don't have a family and 3000 miles away from them. So that’s when I came back. (CLEARS THROAT) That’s why I came back. And Uh…
EPS: Are you doing better? (01:02:13)
DAVID JOHNSON: Better?
EPS: Yes, with the cancer.
DAVID JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, yeah, my major problem is when I was married and living in the valley is probably not the best for me. But I, the house was completely chaotic. They (?) 'cos a lot of uh, wonderful things happened in this house. All the family living those houses have history and people outlive them. I think…you know, everybody’s gone. The grandkids come. This is kind of a, the headquarters.
EPS: Right – everybody comes here to meet and then disperses again.
DAVID JOHNSON: And they all do.
EPS: Do any of your kids want to do photography at all?
DAVID JOHNSON: Michael and Douglas. Yeah. The girls, no.
EPS: How many kids do you have all together?
DAVID JOHNSON: I have four. Michael is the oldest son, no Michael is the youngest son, and Douglas is the oldest son. And Claire is the 15- year old, second child. It’s Douglas and Claire and Michael and Patricia. Patricia is the youngest.
EPS: Do they make a living…?
DAVID JOHNSON: Everybody’s employed.
EPS: No, I mean, as photographers? (01:03:34)
DAVID JOHNSON: No, no. I thought the first into photography would be Michael because Michael is into computer image and he probably comes closer to things that I was interested in than the others. But Douglas, he’s interested in arts, so they all own cameras. And uh, they photographing their own families. So.
Now, I just uh, you asked a question that I didn't really address. While in Florida I met uh, Denise. Denise had a gallery. She later opened a gallery, but Denise was selling the work of other artists, and she saw some of my work. And for some reason, I had a show. Now I don't know why I had a show.
EPS: That was your first show ever? (01:04:29)
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, right, it was my first show. I had been in other shows. This was the first show of my own work, and I had it in the henhouse of the condo that I’m in. And I sent out invitations and I had a reception and people came to see my work. And Denise came, and Denise said, I can sell some of your work for you. Let’s get together. So I showed her my portfolio and Denise got some of my work sold.
And from that point on, I kept thinking someday I’m going back to San Francisco, 'cos this is a San Francisco story, even though some of the images can stand alone. But in context, people there will know. Then I said to the society, you know it would be nice to have a show there. Amy, Amy Howell was kind of the curator. And Amy and I worked to try to get some money for the show. No money ever came. We never got it funded. So at that time I’m selling my condo in Miami. So when I return, I had the money, and Amy told me, “Well I’m gonna get a grant.” But I said, I’ll do it myself.
So I financed this whole show. It cost me about $10,000. For the frames, I had to get some printers, and all of this stuff was uh, the. It probably was the turning point in terms of my work being discovered in my own community, 'cos people came. More than…about a thousand people came to see our show. Out of society, and when it broke in the newspaper, people came to see what was Fillmore like? This is what, yeah, I remember that.
And one little story which I think is interesting is on the photos, the areas, you know, the series of photographs of the children in front of the church (EPS: Right.) -- The guy came to see that, he recognized one of the uh, white kids in there who’s now a fireman or something. He recognized another one who is the manager of the post office, at the post office. And she came later to see the show, and there she is.
EPS: Wow! The little girl. (01:06:43)
DAVID JOHNSON: It was a little girl, yeah. And I took that because I met a guy in the post office that was doing a book. And he wanted me to do a photograph for the cover. Now why I chose that area to photograph, I don't know. I don't know what uh, what he told me he wanted. And then uh, the society had really been a big help to me. And then someone uh, sent a flier around that we’re doing a, a book of photographs called uh, African Americans All Over the United States. And I sent him… I forget what it was called… In Our Own Image, have you seen that?
EPS: I’ve heard of it but not seen it.
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, so I had about six photographs in In Our Own Image. So now I’m getting very excited because the work is in demand & selling. And then certainly when the KQED thing came (the documentary “The Fillmore”), that was really the biggie. That was the biggie. And my little girl was, Patricia, uh, she said, KQED’s looking for photographs of San Francisco. And it turned out I was going to, already coming to San Francisco (LAUGHS). Yeah.
EPS: Right. I was working on the documentary.
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s right. So that was really the turning point.
EPS: Is it weird that after doing this your whole life, it’s all coming together now?
DAVID JOHNSON: It is. Because I uh, I don't think I ever took it that serious. I was looking at it not in the context of the whole picture.
EPS: Right. Back in the day? (01:08:25)
DAVID JOHNSON: Back in the day, yeah. Yeah, here’s uh, but putting it altogether and seeing it that you know, you really have captured a certain slice of African American life that people don't know. They think that those building were always there. Those buildings were falling down, you kn
ow, and there were clubs there. There was a vital community. We lost it. EPS: Does it make you sad? Seeing what’s going on?
DAVID JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it’s uh, it’s kind of uh, makes it difficult for me to live in San Francisco. Not that my choice was all that great, but uh, I keep looking for that, you know, it’s gone. It’s gone.
EPS: Right. Like I think… the picture you sent me the other day, it shows me that all the clubs are gone. All the businesses are gone. They (the Redevelopment Agency) is trying to bring it back but the jazz era is no longer there. (01:09:27)
DAVID JOHNSON: It’s sad. And its not coming back. It’s, they should just stop. It could never be what it was. I think I would prefer it to remain as a memory and you can visit it in terms of the images like you all are doing, and other ways that like you won’t see a little boy sitting in front of the church like this. You know, he’s grown up, the church is torn down. It’ll be like maybe New York may have looked at some point in time in Harlem, and they…It’s the bad side of gentrification. You know, when you destroy. I think in Europe they preserve their cities and buildings, but in America we tear them down (LAUGHS). We tear them down. Yeah, it, it is it’s (STUTTER) I guess I’m sort of in a time warp, but I remember this city when the average guy can get a job on the wharf down in North Beach, buy a house, he could support his family. Or get work at the post office. And go out and do what I did and buy a house. You know, you can’t do that any more. This city has totally changed. It’s in the hands of real estate.
EPS: The very rich. (01:10:43)
DAVID JOHNSON: If it’s got a space, they’re gonna fill it. You know, uh, the service stations get knocked down and they stack people on top of each other. I don't think it’s good. That people who are younger and coming into it don't know what it was like and then they get used to that. Uh, when when you could move around. It’s still a fantastic city, and there’s no question about that, with a very rich history. But those of us who were around in the earlier years…
EPS: When it was more vibrant…Did you know… there are certain names that people talk about in the Fillmore? Did you know Jimbo or Charles Sullivan?
DAVID JOHNSON: I knew Charles Sullivan. And uh, I knew, I knew Jimbo but I never was in the club. And I never photographed him but I knew Sullivan. An interesting thing about Sullivan. Sullivan used to book all of the shows. And we don’t know what happened. There was an unsolved murder of Sullivan.
EPS: What was he like? (01:11:50)
DAVID JOHNSON: I never met him, I just knew of him. Yeah, you know, you pass people. I had no reason to be involved with him anyway, but I knew who he was and I knew what he did. And I think I had visited his little store once or twice. He had a little shop there, we’d go and buy things.
EPS: Do you think the Redevelopment Agency’s heart these days is in the right place? Or do you think they’re not sincere? (01:12:15)
DAVID JOHNSON: It’s, it’s kind of hard to figure why they exist today, what are they doing? I mean, uh, and they are begging for, for some reason they can’t get merchants back on Fillmore Street. Now where’s the small business? Why, I mean, why, we used to be down at Emmett’s barbecue. Best barbecue in town. Virginia’s Hickory Pit. You couldn’t get a better meal. I mean, this lady knew how to cook. The places are vacant. So if (STUTTER) the Redevelopment was serious and the city was serious, why, why couldn’t there be small loans available? Micro-loans. And the Black businesses don't survive down there.
EPS: Do you think its because the number of African Americans in San Francisco has dropped so much?
DAVID JOHNSON: I think that’s a factor. And the churches are failing, facing a real dilemma that they don't want to face.
EPS: Which is?
DAVID JOHNSON: People are uh, I’ve moved away and you can’t use 30% of the population generally speaking, and a higher percentage of Blacks have left uh, San Francisco. Few of them will still come across the bridge here, but their children aren’t gonna come back. And the (STUMBLE) what is the uh, a very funny dilemma I think -- the churches that we bought that were formally white churches now are gonna be sold back. Or the church will turn into something else because people don't go to church anymore. There’ll be symbolic, like 3rd Baptist will always be there symbolically, but there were loads of storefront churches in this town. Along Fillmore, and Divisadero. But you go there on a Sunday and it’s a handful of people. Just a handful of people. EPS: Anything else that you want to add at all that we didn’t cover? (01:14:10)
DAVID JOHNSON: Well, I think the only reason is… I think the real story here is photographer. How I happened to become interested, and I was at a time and place that I met a man, I mean, I came to a place where I could thrive. San Francisco has been a wonderful city for me. It is my home. I’ve been here longer than any other place. Any, since I’ve been alive, and I keep coming back. I may go away, but I come back. So there’s a whole part of me that’s, that will always be here. My name is up at U.C. San Francisco as uh, in 1960 something I got the award of the year. There’s a whole list of people, and a lot of them came out of that Civil Rights movement. Their name’s on the wall. And my name is down at City Hall where I ran for sheriff. Uh, got into politics for a little while…
EPS: When did you run for sheriff?
DAVID JOHNSON: In 1968 I ran for sheriff. I ran against Matt (?).
EPS: Did you win? (01:15:15)
DAVID JOHNSON: No, But I, I got, the city wasn’t as large in those days. I got 27,000 votes in a city-wide election. Uh, everybody in town knew me. 'Cos I’d been out there photographing. It’s something I need not have done. You know, I just did it and uh, of course my name is, is gonna be here. For my grandkids, they can say, “That’s my grandfather.”
EPS: And the photographs.
DAVID JOHNSON: And the photographs will be here. So I feel like uh, the effort was, I don't think I could have been paid enough for all that. Even though I dabble in real estate, you know, this is still my house. It wasn’t my passion. So from the beginning up until now, my passion continues, and I’m influencing other people.
EPS: Do you teach photography in San Francisco?
DAVID JOHNSON: No, I, I was tempted to teach uh, photography down at Merced, and I wanted to teach Black photography. The lives of…the photography of Black photographers. Yes, I would still like to do it. But most of all, I want to put my memoirs together. That’s why I can’t focus on just the photography, my life is more than that. It’s just a piece of that.
## END OF INTERVIEW ##