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Iconic images of black life, culture coming to L.A.

LOS ANGELES – Iconic portraits of black life and culture dating back more than 70 years soon will be on display at the Getty Research Institute, one of several entities selected to acquire part of an extraordinary photo archive recently auctioned by the former owners of Ebony and Jet magazines.

Historic photographs of black celebrities in sports, entertainment, politics and business – as well as in everyday black life – are part of the revered collection of more than four million African-American images from the 1940s through the 2010s, organizers say.

“There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive,” said James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, one of four foundations that paid $30 million for the unprecedented collection. “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, former owners of Ebony and Jet, were forced to sell the archive after declaring bankruptcy in April. That announcement fueled widespread concern over the fate of the magazine’s legacy and its prized photo archive.

Many observers issued a collective sigh of relief when a coalition of foundations bought the archive and announced that it would donate it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the Getty Research Institute and other cultural institutions.

The sale, held to pay off secured creditors, is pending court approval.

The Smithsonian is expected to be the public steward of the collection while the Getty Research Institute’s charge is to digitally preserve the archive, some of which is unknown and has never been seen by the public.

The archive contains photos of black life from 1945 to 2015, with about one million printed images, three million negatives and contact sheets, and several thousand hours of video footage, organizers say. It is widely considered the most extensive depiction of black life ever documented.

“Johnson Publishing had 55 photographers on full-time staff. Think about it, 55 African-American photographers were documenting everything from daily life to black leaders, to artists, athletes and celebrities,” said Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute.

“There is an unknown hidden document inside the Johnson archive that we will learn,” she added. “What else was photographed will blow people’s minds.”

Miller said it’s too early to say which pieces the Getty institute will receive or when they will acquire them. Asked why Getty was the right place for the collection, Miller said one of the reasons is the institute’s “open access” policy.

“This collection will be open to the public, to students, researchers and anyone who wants to see it,” said Miller, who hopes to make the collection available online. “Plus, it’s the right place because we do state-of-the-art digitization. … We are committed to making sure we understand the context of the photographer.”

Ebony and Jet, launched in 1945 and 1951 respectively, chronicled African American life in America, resulting in a stunning collection of four million images that include Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Coretta Scott King grieving at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

In 1955, Jet published the infamous photo of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed by white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Images of that killing, coupled with the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began three months later, helped to ignite the modern-day civil rights movement.

LeRonn Brooks, GRI’s associate curator for modern and contemporary collections, said he is well aware of the enormity and historical significance of the archive and the project.

“We have to be careful at every stage because it’s a valuable legacy we’re taking care of,” he said. “You have to remember that some of the photos in this collection were taken during moments of segregation. They documented the intimacy of African-American life. They documented the best of our community. Others didn’t document that stuff.”

“There is a deep, cultural meaning to protect it,” he added. “It’s important to be careful about how we move forward.”

Brooks said all the foundations and cultural institutions involved have just one key goal in mind – protecting, maintaining and promoting the archive.

“We all do care. This partnership is diverse,” he said. “We all just want to preserve this collection.”