Reflections in black MID-CENTURY AFRICAN-AMERICAN CAULTURE, CAPTURED BY PHILADELPHIA PHOTOGRAPHER JOHN W. MOSLEY

Posted: February 11, 2010

In African-American communities in the early 20th century, they were known simply as "picture-taking men."

Equipped with cameras and know-how, these black men (and the occasional woman) were summoned to photograph special occasions - weddings, graduations, cotillions - as well as news and sporting events.

Some gained wide acclaim. In New York, there was James Van Der Zee; in Pittsburgh, Charles "Teenie" Harris; and Addison Scurlock and family in Washington, D.C.

Philadelphia's picture-taking men were John W. Mosley and, later, Jack T. Franklin, who photographed not only the routines and celebrations of the city's black life but also the notables - musicians, artists, athletes, and civil-rights leaders like W.E.B. Dubois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Cecil B. Moore - who lived in the region or passed through.

By the scope of their photographs, Mosley and Franklin also became known as chroniclers of the sweep of local black history, both the quiet times and the tumultuous ones, such as the 1944 Philadelphia Transportation Company strike to the 1960s protests that helped force the integration of Girard College.

Historian Charles L. Blockson said that Mosley, who died in 1969 at age 62, and Franklin, who died last September at 87, were extending an old black tradition.

"Every summer the 'picture-taking man' would come around," said Blockson, a native of Norristown. "The mothers would make sure their children had their pictures taken . . . In the black community, whether in New York or Chicago, there were certain traditions. And John and Jack Franklin, they kept the traditions of African people alive."

Blockson and other historians and educators note that much of black history in the early to mid-20th century was a visual history, recorded mostly in black-and-white photographs.

"The written word was not as accessible, and so people were beginning to read images as storytelling," said photographer and author Deborah Willis, a Philadelphia native who is the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University.

Black photographers "understood there was a story they wanted to tell," Willis said. "They couldn't write it, but they could photograph it."

From the late 1930s to the late 1960s, the self-taught Mosley took more than 300,000 images, and, by extension, he captured the breadth of a turbulent and promising time for black people.

His vast portfolio was given by relatives to Blockson in the 1990s for inclusion in the Charles L. Blockson Collection, an extensive array of historical books, papers, and artifacts gathered by Blockson over a lifetime and housed at Temple University.

While his photos include shots of prominent whites, including Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, physicist Albert Einstein and international dignitaries on their visits to Philadelphia, Mosley kept a focus on black life, common people at work, and leisure.

He shot photos on the streets, in the stores, barber shops and beauty salons on Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) and South Street, at churches throughout the city, and at "Chicken Bone Beach" in Atlantic City. (It is estimated he took nearly 25,000 photos in Atlantic City.)

Mosley "had no distance between the people he [photographed], whether they were movers and shakers of the elite families, the 'light, bright and damn-near white,' the black bourgeoisie, or ordinary children," Blockson said in a recent interview. "To him, a person was a person, regardless of their status."

Mosley, the son of a Baptist preacher, was born in 1907 in Lumberton, N.C., and moved to Philadelphia in 1934. His interest in photography had emerged in his youth in the 1920s, after he received a simple box camera.

In Philadelphia, he went to work at Barksdale Photography Studio at 8th and Market streets, where he learned the fundamentals of his craft.

His photos began appearing in the Philadelphia Tribune and other major black newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro American, and in Jet Magazine. He also became the staff photographer of the Pyramid Club, the premier black social club of Philadelphia, on the 1500 block of Girard Avenue.

Mosley was married to Theresa Still, a member of a prominent New Jersey family, and had two sons. They lived on the 5000 block of Chestnut Street. He kept a darkroom and studio at the Christian Street YMCA, a focal point of Philadelphia's black community at 17th and Christian streets. It was at the Y that he photographed many black children at play.

Mosley, who never learned to drive, was often seen lugging his Rolleiflex, Graflex Speed Graphic and other cameras on his shoulders, said Clarence Still, his brother-in-law.

Still and Blockson said Mosley labored hard to earn a decent living. "Lord knows how many hours he worked in a day," Blockson said. "He would work in the morning, taking weddings, plus he was the official photographer for the Pyramid Club." But, Still said Mosley "did very well" and noted, "He was a conservative man who didn't throw his money away."

Among the many news events Mosley photographed was the 1944 Philadelphia Transportation Company strike. Earlier that year, Mosley had photographed blacks marching in the streets to protest the lack of black motormen. In August, when plans were announced to upgrade eight black employees to motormen's jobs, thousands of white transit workers went on a wildcat strike, stranding more than a million daily riders and heightening racial tensions.

At the time, Philadelphia was an important center in the country's World War II production. The strike idled all subway, trolley and bus service, forcing countless workers to hike miles to and from their jobs in near-100-degree heat. Officials estimated that the walkout resulted in the loss of about 500,000 man-hours of war production at factories and mills in and around Philadelphia.

William Farmer, a retired North Philadelphia print shop owner, recalled: "People were up in arms about the strike. Blacks didn't like it a bit and neither did white folks." His mother, who worked at 15th and Market streets, struggled to get to work from North Philadelphia. "The strike really messed things up," Farmer said.

On the third day of the strike, President Roosevelt sent in troops to take control of the transit company. On the fifth day, the federal government ordered the strikers to get back to work or lose their jobs, and mandated that those aged 18 to 37 who defied the order would have their draft deferments canceled.

The strikers quickly returned to work, and the eight blacks were promoted to motormen.

In addition to his work in Philadelphia, Mosley was drawn to segregated Atlantic City, where he photographed blacks at leisure on "Chicken Bone Beach." This legendary stretch of sand, from Missouri to Ohio avenues, was nicknamed for the contents of the picnic baskets black families brought from Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere in New Jersey.

Along with the throng of common folk, black celebrities from musicians, actors, and athletes to politicians and civil rights leaders were drawn to the beach, and Mosley photographed them all - Dr. King, Sammy Davis Jr., Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and many others.

Clarence Still, Mosley's brother-in-law, who lives in Lawnside, said going to Chicken Bone Beach was "a family adventure." "Women would bring all these pots of fried chicken. Nobody seemed to care about it being a segregated beach. It was really a great pleasure being there."

At the beach, as well as in his studio and in other places, Mosley took many shots of beautiful young black women. Many of the photos, according to NYU's Deborah Willis and Blockson, were sent as morale-boosting pinups to black soldiers during World War II.

Mosley "understood beauty," Willis said. "He had lots of women who posed in Atlantic City, the Penn Relays, and different places for him. Those images that were seen as pinups were also symbolic of these soldiers' desire to come back to the beautiful woman at home waiting for them."

Mosley's sister-in-law, Gloria Still, said the photos always conveyed dignity and respect. "The women he photographed were beautiful. They were educated and they came from good homes," she said. "Those pictures are still so alive."

She said it was important to Mosley that his photographs always depicted black people positively.

"I believe that his photography was a reflection of the man. That's the way he thought; that's the way he perceived. He was a positive human being and his eyes were always on the positive."

One Mosley photograph from the late 1940s features civil-rights leader Julian Bond, then a young boy, being hugged by Paul Robeson, the famous actor, singer, scholar and political activist.

Bond said in an interview that the shot was taken in the home of his father, Horace Mann Bond, then president of historically black Lincoln University in Chester County, as Robeson sang "The Four Insurgent Generals," a Spanish loyalist song.

"The thing I remember most about the picture is I am standing right there next to Robeson," Bond said. "My body is pushed up against his chest and the vibrations were just remarkable. That deep, deep voice was just a buzz, a hum. It was magnificent.

"I knew he was famous. I knew he was a singer. I didn't understand anything about the political role he played in American life, but I knew he was somebody."

He added, "The black college campus was one of the few places where people like Robeson could easily come and go. He wasn't welcome everywhere."

Willis noted that although Mosley was self-taught, he was skilled in the technical aspects of photography.

"He was able to go into places with low light and he was able to to use the right type of lighting to capture the skin tone, the mood," she said. "He skillfully used the camera in ways that told multiple stories."

Mosley's son, John Jr., said his father often carefully posed his subjects. "He meticulously organized people for group shots and he wanted to make the lighting just right so people never looked sinister. The focus was sharp as possible."

Blockson said that was reflected in a striking photo of baseball great Jackie Robinson and activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

Robinson was "looking at Mary McLeod Bethune, our great leader who was part of President Roosevelt's 'Kitchen Cabinet' during the '40s," Blockson said. "Here's Jackie Robinson looking up at Mary McLeod Bethune with awe and wisdom."

Clarence Still said that Mosley's photographs were treasured in the black community, and that he was sought out for special occasions.

"If you had an anniversary or something, you had to call him." Still said. "If you had a picture by Mosley, you had something. If you had an important event, he was invited. He was a favorite of social groups, women's groups and sports people. Everybody had him out."

Blockson noted that he himself was among the people Mosley photographed, when Blockson competed as a Penn State shot putter at the 1955 Penn Relays.

"I was honored to have him take my photograph because you used to [see his work in] the Tribune and all the black newspapers," Blockson said. "You used to see him at the Penn Relays, and everywhere he went he had four or five cameras on his shoulders and back."

It's not known whether Mosley approached his work with the belief that he was chronicling history or whether he was simply doing a job.

Clarence Still thinks it was the latter. "Back in the early days, it was just picture-taking. It was just a business," said Still, who often drove Mosley to his assignments. "But as you get older, you realize the value of what he had."

Willis, however, said she thought Mosley "knew he was creating history because . . . he understood black images were not circulating."

"Knowing some of the older photographers that I interviewed," she said, "they knew they were making history and they understood that everyday life was central to documenting history."

Whatever his intention, Blockson said, Mosley left a legacy of black history.

"He took photos of Joe Louis, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the whole of our history," Blockson said. "You have a whole history in this man."

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Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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