Feb. 9, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 4

Black and White in Black and White

The images were unusual, he says, for several reasons. First, the population of African-Americans in Lincoln was “quite small.” Second, the subjects suggested a black photographer, unusual for the time period. And finally, these were environmental portraits, not formal studio shots, as were typical in the early 1900s.

“These were pictures of people where they lived, giving us an incredible amount of information,” says Keister. For example, at the edge of a group portrait of black children on a porch, a white child is visible—providing information about race relations in an integrated Lincoln neighborhood.

In 1999, Keister’s mother sent him a newspaper clipping about 36 glass negatives discovered in Lincoln. “The style of the photographs looked like the photos I had,” he says. He e-mailed the Nebraska State Historical Society, and before he knew it, his collection was identified as the work of African-American photographer John Johnson and possibly with the assistance of another African-American photo studio worker, Earl McWilliams—and declared a state treasure.

Keister had just returned from two weeks in Israel and Jordan when he spoke to Inside Chico State. He was working on a book project, 101 Tombs to Check Out Before You Do. “I got Elvis, so I had to get Jesus!” he laughed. But he also spent time photographing Bedouins where they live, including Bedouin children at home and at play. And in the back of his mind, as has been the case for nearly 50 years now, were the images encased within those glass negatives.

“Those pictures have given me an appreciation of the environmental portrait,” he says. “There is so much more you can show there—so much of value historically and so much to evoke an emotional response.”

Campus and community can see the evocative images for themselves at Black and White in Black and White, running through Feb. 24 at the Humanities Center Gallery in Trinity Hall as part of the campus’s Black History Month celebration. This is the first public exhibition of Keister’s collection—thanks in part, says Keister, to the efforts of Dean Joel Zimbelman. However, the Smithsonian Institution has requested 30 to 50 of the images for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction.

Currently on display in Trinity Hall are vintage items seen in the photographs, a camera and darkroom equipment similar to that used by John Johnson, and some of the original glass negatives along with 31 large-scale prints—big enough, Keister says, so “people can just about step into these lives from 100 years ago.”

Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications

More Black History Month events are found on the calendar in the “Upcoming Events” section of the Office of Diversity home page.