When Al Smith was born in Seattle in 1914, black residents were less than 1 percent of the city's population. He was the first black student to attend O'Dea, the private Catholic boys' school on First Hill. He was the only black member of his Boy Scout troop.
Smith was given his first camera in 1926, but photography was never more than a hobby, something he made time for after he was done with work at the Bremerton shipyard or the post office. Any money he made from selling the photos he used to buy more equipment. Ultimately, Smith's "hobby" created a prolific and varied historical record that can easily compete with the works of the 20th century's most celebrated documentary photographers.
He had a talent for capturing social moments, as is immediately clear in early photographs of friends, classmates, and cheering crowds at a Ubangi Blackhawks football game. By the middle of World War II, he was spending most of his free time taking pictures of the Central District and Seattle's rapidly expanding black community.
If he is known for anything, it's as a documentary photographer of Seattle's short-lived Jackson Street jazz scene: the Leon Vaughan Band caught in a moment of laughter, the teenage Ernestine Anderson concentrating into a microphone, the one and only Duke Ellington grinning at the piano while bassist Oscar Pettiford takes a swig of whiskey, a blissful Lionel Hampton mid-leap and fully airborne while conducting his band. The jazz photos are lively, striking, and unparalleled—with recognizable names, flashy outfits, booze-soaked faces—and they offer juicy details of a part of Seattle that was ignored at the time by the white media.
But those photographs are a tiny fraction of his output. He made more than forty thousand images of ceremonies, fraternities, house parties, nightclubs, sport teams, political groups, family gatherings, parades, weddings, funerals, local businesses, and neighborhood events in the Central District, where Seattle's black community had to live pursuant to restrictive racial housing covenants. (From 1910 to 1980, you could isolate Seattle's "black community" on a map.) During his lifetime, Smith's collection was kept in a variety of grocery bags, boxes, and drawers. His wife, Isabelle Smith, told their children: "When your father passes, be sure to bury that camera with him. Because if you don't, he's coming back to get it."
After his death in 2008, the images were donated to the Museum of History & Industry, and staffers and volunteers have been sorting and cataloging them for years. Now, for the very first time, MOHAI is hosting an appropriately hefty retrospective of Smith's artwork, on exhibit until June 2018.
The show was curated by Howard Giske, MOHAI's curator of photography and Smith's longtime friend. One of the many local historians, artists, and community leaders who collaborated on it is Al Smith's son Dr. Butch Smith, who writes in a companion book printed by University of Washington Press that his father had told him that he was "doing nothing special, just taking pictures." Don't let his humility fool you. This is an essential and shockingly overlooked historical record.
Walking through the exhibit takes you from biographical information (including photos of the light-skinned "grandmother" who helped the family acquire housing) to a faux photographic darkroom, and then through Smith's inspirations and community connections. Then you proceed into a nightclub with music, period clothing, and activities including "spike your own cocktail." Then you walk into several more galleries featuring scanned prints, and finally into a reflection room with Central District oral histories, related artworks, and transparent prints of several of Smith's photos hung inside the window frames. The afternoon I visited, the sun was particularly strong and the black-and-white scenes in the windows—a pickup basketball game in the Central District and a boy riding his bike—blurred into the bright particulars of the current landscape outside the museum, including Lake Union ship masts, bright clouds, and the trees over Eastlake.
MOHAI's commitment to interactive activities is sometimes unbearably kitschy. The nightclub games and darkroom setup are arguably too cute, but the final room (which includes a station where you can record your own stories of the neighborhood and an old-fashioned telephone you pick up to listen to accounts by artists, historians, and even Al and Isabelle Smith) is powerfully assembled.
"There's a concern among many of the old-timers that we've lost a sense of the old black community in the Central District," Butch Smith told me.
Persistent segregation and willful ignorance mean that many Seattle residents are aware of the loss, but they don't seem to know what exactly has disappeared. Archival Seattle Times headlines from the middle of the century discuss the Central District's "unhealthy look" and "bum rap," going on to describe attempts at "buffing up" the neighborhood's image—the precursor to gentrification and rising housing costs. A two-part investigative series published in Seattle magazine in the mid-1960s wanted to describe the neighborhood with balance and empathy, and yet part two is titled "Perplexity and Frustration Characterize the World in Which Negroes Live." Even the mainstream (that is to say, white) media coverage from the 1980s and '90s focused on stories of violence, drugs, and prostitution.
Al Smith's photographs don't fit this sad-sack narrative. "You think of 'segregated Seattle,' and you think about the poor people who lived in that terrible ghetto," Butch Smith chuckled. "And yet you look at all of these pictures with people having fun and laughing... he captured people having fun. He captured people happy, enjoying life and doing things together as a community."
These are images of achievement (small-business owners, pageant winners, successful musicians, civil rights activists, performers, pilots, athletes) as well as leisure, love, and ordinary bliss. A few images show conflict and pain, like the weeping pallbearers at Royal Esquire Club member Al Herre's funeral, or the immediate aftermath of a nightclub brawl. Some of Smith's strongest images are of couples or groups engaged in conversation, smiles wide and weird and arresting, so enchanted by the company they're keeping that Smith seems invisible. "If he walked in here right now, you'd see him but you wouldn't really be all that focused on him," Butch said. "He'd be five feet away, observing you."
From Walker Evans to Diane Arbus, many famous documentary photographers created intimacy through intrusion. Their presence as artists is palpable; you can see their subjects reacting, uncomfortable, offering a kind of knee-jerk shyness that films well and provokes emotion in the viewer. The son of Floyd Burroughs Jr. (whom Walker Evans photographed for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) said of Evans's photos: "Everybody wants something... They were cast in a light that they couldn't do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant." Most of those photos didn't show the dust bowl farmers living their lives, but presented their clothing, possessions, and physical trauma as part of a politically important horror show of poverty.
Al Smith's work, by contrast, lifts up his subjects without unnecessary pomp. He shows intimacy and vulnerability without judgment; the results feel honest and not manipulative. Smith didn't achieve this by befriending every subject or asking their permission before taking pictures. He seems to have been led by his artistic eye, drawn to emotional expression and guided by his own social aptitude and humility. Sometimes his candid background subjects catch him in action—with curiosity, openness, and occasional flirtation, their eyes flashing a look that says "come closer" not "back off."
Smith photographed Seattle for more than six decades, but MOHAI's show Seattle on the Spot focuses on the 1940s to 1960s: decades of growth, upheaval, and social paradoxes. The idea of a "racial utopia" among the evergreens (yes, there is an extensive history of white-nationalist organizing in this region) was thoroughly shattered when the number of black Seattleites grew to 10,000 in 1945, 15,000 in 1950, and 27,000 in 1960.
In response, brand-new "Whites Only" signs appeared in local businesses. White neighborhoods popped up in every direction while the Central District became more and more crowded. The community was both splintered and strengthened. Black workers gained limited opportunities at Boeing while facing racism of a new, unabashed intensity. Policing was either violent or nonexistent in the Central District, and government corruption spread citywide, which made profitable and energetic neighborhood nightlife possible. Being black excluded people from most kinds of housing and employment, but all Seattleites could entertain fantasies of equality at nightclubs in black and Asian neighborhoods, sites of real-life "race-mixing" outside the context of service work. By the 1960s, however, almost all the nightlife venues had been shut down. (Author Paul de Barros, who wrote a book about Seattle jazz featuring photographs by Smith, references a widespread idea that the crackdowns were part of an Italian mob scheme to control local gambling.)
Seattle on the Spot does an excellent job of showing the depth and breadth of Smith's subjects, his eye for social life that ranged from churches to bars to birthday parties, and the precision, skill, and love he brought to this crucial "passion project." The show leaves political consequences up to the viewer but underscores the history that must be reckoned with before the interwoven stories of the city can be understood. It also hints at the way that an ostracized community with a variety of cultural backgrounds faced racism at every level, created their own set of institutions, racked up accomplishments despite the officials and locals who ignored or reviled them, and indulged in debauchery, love, pride, performance, vulnerability, excellence, and normalcy.
"It's frustrating because there's not much you can do about the loss, other than alert people to what the community was," Butch told me. "But it's gone." Thankfully, we have this show.