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From old Fillmore photos, a rebirth


Singer James Brown may have been the hardest-working man in show business, but David Johnson is surely the hardest-working 84-year-old in the photography business.

In recent months he’s had four major exhibitions — mostly photographs from the heyday of the Fillmore’s jazz era — including one in Atlanta and another at the San Francisco International Airport. He’s featured in a new book, The Golden Decade, celebrating the circle of post-war photographers who studied with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts. He’s just returned from the screening of “Positive Negatives,” a new documentary on his photographic career, at the San Diego Black Film Festival. And he’s newly married for a second time.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he says with the warm and easy smile of a man who realizes that fate is treating him kindly. “It’s been a long journey. You never know what life is going to bring, but sometimes it’s an opportunity.”

Johnson grew up in a foster home in Jacksonville, Florida, and became fascinated by photography after he won a camera in a contest when he was 12. He took pictures throughout his school years. Then war got in the way. He passed through San Francisco on his way to a stint with the Navy in the Philippines. After a taste of the wider world, he knew when he got back home to Jacksonville that he couldn’t stay. “I wanted to get the hell out of the South,” he says. “No more back of the bus for me.”

He saw a notice in Popular Photography magazine that Ansel Adams was beginning a first-of-its-kind photography program at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. “I knew nothing of Ansel Adams,” he says. “But I knew the school was in San Francisco, and that was good enough for me.”

So he wrote to Adams and expressed his interest. “I told him I was a Negro,” he says. “I didn’t want to come all that way and find I wasn’t welcome.” Adams replied that race was irrelevant and invited Johnson to stay at his house on the edge of Seacliff until he found a place to live.

He’d explored the city when he came through town earlier as a sailor. He remembers: “I asked at the Greyhound bus station, ‘Where’s the colored part of town?’ They told me to take the B car out to Fillmore and Geary.” That was his first taste of the Fillmore. “It was a wonderland,” he says. “People were everywhere. I walked up and down the streets. There was lots going on.”

We Demand, 1963, by David Johnson

We Demand, 1963, by David Johnson

So after he returned and settled in to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer, he rented a room in the Fillmore, which would become a central part of his work. In the ’50s he had a studio on Divisadero Street, between Bush and Pine, with an apartment in the back. He photographed the people and the jazz joints and later the social struggles of the civil rights movement and the upheaval of redevelopment.

He also got a day job at the post office, and later at the UCSF Medical Center. He became an activist and a union leader. He married and had a family. Decades passed. But all the while he kept taking photographs.

By the turn of the century, he was living in Miami. His daughter called one day and said she’d heard that KQED was planning a documentary on the Fillmore and was looking for pictures from the old days. So he called the producer and offered his.

“They just went ape,” he says. “Many of the photographers had died. But I had all that stuff — I even had the negatives, just as Ansel taught me.”

Johnson’s photographs were prominently featured in the documentary, which won rave reviews and still is occasionally rebroadcast. His work was on the cover of Harlem of the West, the book that grew out of the documentary.

At the same time, the Fillmore Jazz District was finally becoming a reality. New clubs opened, including the Fillmore location of Yoshi’s. When 1300 on Fillmore restaurant opened next door, its lounge included dozens of historic photographs from the earlier Fillmore jazz era — including a mural-size enlargement of an image Johnson captured in 1949 at Fillmore and Post that crackles with the vitality of the time.

“There’s interest, now that the community is changing, in what its history was like,” Johnson says. “It’s exciting. I feel like it’s a rebirth.”

Fillmore and Post Street, San Francisco, 1946, by David Johnson