The timing couldn’t be better for an exhibition of photographs of John W. Mosley. With the country divided over police-involved shootings and an election tainted with racism, A Million Faces provides a visual narrative of where we have been and where we still need to go.
Mosley’s images remove the blinders of segregation from those of us who grew up in Philadelphia in the 1940s through the 1960s, highlighting Philadelphia’s vibrant African-American community at that time. Mosley came from the south to Philadelphia in the 1930s during the Great Migration. As a photojournalist for the city’s black newspapers, he purposefully reflected positive images of African-American life, aiming his lens at individuals representing the community’s highest aspirations.
A surprise to some, nostalgia to others
For longtime readers of the Philadelphia Tribune and other area publications aimed at African-American readers, such images are not new. But for others, Mosley’s photographs will be startling. His photographs of “Chicken Bone Beach,” the only section of Atlantic City that allowed blacks, shows a world that white beachgoers, such as myself, never glimpsed, even though we were at the same summer resort. In one photo, a beautiful, young black woman smiles joyfully as waves ripple around her body. In another, Sammy Davis Jr. lifts a sylphlike woman in his arms. There’s even a shot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relaxing in swim shorts.
No white photographer ever had this kind of intimate access within the black community. A constant factor throughout the exhibition is the obvious comfort level of Mosley’s subjects. He isn’t there to condescend, intrude, or degrade. He is there to uplift, promote, and celebrate a community’s daily life, aspirations, and achievements. Images of members of the Pyramid Club, an organization of black business leaders established in 1937, reflect prosperity, pride, and civic engagement.
Growing up on the Main Line, I was well aware of debutante cotillions I would never attend, not because of my race but because of my religion. However, I stood transfixed in front of Mosely’s photos of African-American cotillions in the 1950s, showing young black women in elegant ball gowns making their debut. The annual black cotillion was a fundraising event for Frederick Douglass Hospital, now Mercy-Douglass Hospital. I was equally entranced by a 1949 photo of dancer Joan Myers Brown, who went on to open the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960, when most dance schools were still segregated, and later founded Philadanco.
Celebs and citizens
Celebrity seekers will not be disappointed. Highlights include: Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lena Horne. If you have only seen images of these famous performers taken by white photographers at concerts attended by primarily white audiences, you are in for a treat. The smile on singer Eartha Kitt’s face, performing for an entirely black audience, is nothing like her deadpan expression as a guest on the Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1950s.
A Million Faces also chronicles the slow and tumultuous transformation of Philadelphia from a segregated to an more integrated city. Mosley photographed boys perched on the steps of the Christian Street YMCA, the first black Y in the city and the only one that would admit black children and adults. It was here, in the Christian Street Y, that Mosley had his darkroom.
Integration did not come without protest, and wherever African Americans took to the streets, Mosley was there to record it. Sometimes he focused on the charismatic black leaders of the civil rights movement: Dr. King, Adam Clayton Powell, W. E. B. Du Bois. But in one of the exhibition’s most powerful images, Mosley turned his lens away from the speaker and captured the faces of demonstrators at 40th and Lancaster Streets in 1965.
Over 20 years earlier, in 1943, Mosley had photographed a mass protest against the Philadelphia Transportation Company, which refused to hire black veterans of WWII. They hold signs, “We drive tanks, why not trolleys?”
Mosley also clearly loved photographing black athletes. His image of Charles L. Blockson preparing to throw a shot at the Penn Relays in 1955 is a showstopper. The photograph works on many levels, as an abstract design and as a dynamic display of black power about to be hurled into the universe.
While visitors will marvel at the depth and breadth of Mosley’s work, the exhibition addresses not just the inequality of the past, but of the present. A Million Faces also offers the rarest of all attributes: hope.
What, When, Where
A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley. Through Jan. 16, 2017 at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. (215) 247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org.