PHILADELPHIA — What pictures would black photographers make in a world without white people? How would black people present themselves to the camera if they knew that white people weren’t looking?
These questions, which are far more easily asked than answered, have been on my mind ever since I visited A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley, a sprawling yet coherent exhibition on view at the Woodmere Art Museum. The questions arise, in part, because very few white people appear in Mosley’s photographs; almost all of his subjects were members of Philadelphia’s large, complex African American community. More importantly, however, Mosley almost always made his images without any expectation that white people would see them. His intended audience was black folks. He aimed to please them and no one else.
Between the 1930s and the end of the 1960s, Mosley worked as a photojournalist for the African American press and as a commercial photographer serving black clients. In Philadelphia, as across the nation, black people had created a vibrant community behind the invisible walls of segregation. It’s tempting, but pointless, to argue that these walls allowed Mosley to photograph as if white people didn’t exist. These black communities were born of racial oppression. Although they provided a sanctuary from the harsh realities of American racism, those realities never faded completely from view.
Still, black communities embraced their relative autonomy, and, within them, photographers like Mosley played the important roles of storyteller and witness. He was part of a large cohort of photographers, including Teenie Harris in Pittsburgh and the Scurlock Studio in Washington, DC, who sought to portray African American customers in ways that reflected their visions of themselves. These photographers weren’t preoccupied with contradicting demeaning racial stereotypes or with pleading the case for the humanity of black people. Their photographic practices paid little attention to white sensibilities.
Over the course of his career, Mosley produced 300,000 photographs, most of which are now housed in the Temple University Libraries’ Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. The 150 prints included in A Million Faces constitute a representative selection of his work. Activists and celebrities, such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, and Muhammad Ali, are scattered throughout. But far more of the photographs capture ordinary black Philadelphians in moments that range from the heroic — protesting racial discrimination — to the mundane — enjoying a day at the beach. The result is a wide-ranging and often intimate look at four decades of life in Philadelphia’s black community.
While Mosley didn’t think of himself as an artist, many of his photographs demonstrate his artistry with a camera. The formal qualities of “Easter Sunday” (c. 1950s), for example, are striking. Mosley centers his female subject between the receding lines of an urban landscape and separates her from it by carefully modulating his depth of field. Yet it’s the subject, not the composition, that captures the imagination. The woman’s formidable elegance makes it hard for a contemporary viewer not to read the photograph as an assertion of dignity and beauty in the face of a culture that wanted to deny her both of those things. It’s by no means certain, however, that either the woman or Mosley was out to prove a point. Instead, they may well have wanted nothing more than to make a precise and flattering record of a particular moment in time.
Mosley’s compositional sophistication also shapes “Picnic,” which probably dates from the late 1940s. Once again, a serene woman of considerable grace is the central figure in the photograph. She looks confidently into the camera, while fellow picnickers — spectators at what seems to be a baseball game — and, in the distance, a ball player are arranged with casual precision behind her. In the center of the frame, an automobile interrupts the otherwise bucolic scene. As with “Easter Sunday,” the photograph’s aesthetic qualities demand a viewer’s attention. Yet the image is equally compelling for the glimpse it offers of a black middle class whose existence was, and perhaps continues to be, largely unacknowledged by whites.
One of the surprises of the exhibition, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an unidentified man and woman on Chicken Bone Beach, Atlantic City, NJ” (1956), makes no claim to being considered a work of art. If not for its extraordinary content, it would be an unremarkable snapshot. Mosley captured King decked out in gaudy sportswear and posing with the unidentified man on a segregated beach in Atlantic City, while the unidentified woman takes his picture. It’s the kind of photograph that shows up half-remembered in family albums. Most viewers today will have never seen such an unheroic image of King. The setting and his clothing humanize him, allowing us to see this Georgia preacher as a member of the thoroughly American black middle class that played a crucial role in the freedom struggle.
The civil rights leader appears in a more familiar role in “Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally protesting Girard College’s segregationist admissions policy, Philadelphia” (1965). Mosley’s photojournalistic image of King-the-orator is far too disorderly to have been used by a newspaper. Yet the photograph’s undeniable fascination grows precisely out of its clutter. King, in sharp focus, occupies a small, off-center portion of the image. An out-of-focus white photographer, his camera just visible over his shoulder, dominates the center of the frame. Directly in front of him, a white cameraman balances a 16mm film camera aimed in King’s direction. Microphones separate the speaker from both photographers. In the lower right of the picture, a crowd of African American listeners recedes into the distance. In the lower right foreground, a member of the crowd points his camera not at King but toward the sky, apparently checking its settings. The image certainly failed as photojournalism in 1965; for viewers in 2016, however, it serves as an astute commentary on the media spectacle that the civil rights movement sometimes became, as well as a mesmerizing historical document.
“Philadelphia Transportation Company Protest” (1943) is a more conventional photojournalistic image, but no less arresting than those of King. A broad line of protesters dominates the picture, beginning in the left foreground and receding diagonally across. The stylishly dressed crowd seems to be composed of women and teenage boys. This is not surprising: Mosley made the photograph on a workday in the middle of World War II; many men would have either been at their jobs or serving in the military. Behind the women and boys, trees and office buildings stretch skyward. The protesters’ signs, stenciled in bold black letters, show how the African Americans’ “Double V” (Double Victory) campaign linked the war against fascism abroad to the fight against racial discrimination at home.
Except for his photojournalism, few of Mosley’s images deal with what was then called “the Negro problem.” The poor and working-class African Americans whom social scientists, policy makers, and documentary photographers were so often preoccupied with appeared less frequently in his photographs than members of the middle class, almost certainly because they were less likely to be able to afford his fees. When they did turn up, however, they were never objects of pity. The men that Mosley posed in “Pullman Porters at Pennsylvania Station (now 30th Street Station), Philadelphia” (c. 1940s) hold themselves with a dignity and assertiveness that were at odds with the expectations that came with their jobs on the railroad. The men were, in fact, not Pullman Porters but dining car waiters, a role that required deference to and even self-abasement in front of sometimes hostile white passengers. Mosley arranged the men in a roughly symmetrical formation that suggests both labor and racial solidarity. The expressions on their faces, while varied, belie any notion that deference was part of their character. The grins they wore on the job were, the photograph tells us, masks.
Mosley meant for his photojournalism to be a public record; his commissioned photographs were private keepsakes. In both cases, their intended audiences were primarily, and often exclusively, African American. Now, because of A Million Faces and its soon-to-be-published catalogue, as well as the online archive at Temple University, the images are reaching much larger and whiter audiences. It does no injustice to either the photographer or his subjects to acknowledge that new audiences, new media, and the simple passage of time necessarily alter the ways that viewers see his photographs, as well as the meanings attached to them. What had been private keepsakes have become public art. Simple snapshots have taken on the gravitas of history. Mosley’s images now speak in registers he probably never imagined they would. They represent a community to strangers of all colors, telling stories about it and its people and providing a resource that scholars will mine for years to come. At the same time, having acquired the patina of art, they hang on gallery walls as objects of aesthetic contemplation. However viewers choose to understand them, the photographs retain their ability to delight, surprise, and instruct. Mosley and his subjects would certainly be pleased.
A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley continues at the Woodmere Art Museum (9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia) through January 16, 2017.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.