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Posted on: June 25, 2021

New Photo Library to be Named for Legendary SF Photographer David Johnson


SAN FRANCISCO, CA A new photo library at the Harvey Milk Photo Center will be named for legendary photographer David Johnson, who chronicled Black life in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department announced today.

Johnson will be honored during a virtual dedication ceremony held Saturday. The David Johnson Photo Library, which will open after Labor Day, will feature hundreds of photo reference books and a seating area for visitors to the Harvey Milk Photo Center to enjoy.  

Johnson, who was born in 1926, moved to San Francisco after serving in World War II to study photography at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) with Ansel Adams and Minor White. He was Adams’s first African American student. Both Adams and White encouraged Johnson to photograph what he knew, leading to Johnson to document street life in the Fillmore, as well as the civil rights movement. 

Mayor London Breed issued a commendation recognizing Johnson for his powerful work capturing life in the Fillmore. From 1947 into the 1960s, he photographed residents on the streets and sidewalks, in churches and barbershops, and in social clubs and juke joints. 

“David Johnson is truly a remarkable person in our community who has captured the essence and the experience of African Americans in San Francisco, and especially the Fillmore. When we look at the history books and talk about the Harlem of the West, his photographs are the one that documented our stories. We are fortunate our history is not lost because of his work,” Mayor Breed said.   

Among Johnson’s most well-known portraits is “Clarence,” a 5-year-old boy sitting on the steps of a Fillmore church. It was the San Francisco Chronicle’s Picture of the Week in 1947. 

“Little did I know that 80 plus years ago when I picked up my first camera as a young boy in Jacksonville, Florida, that little device would provide me with a skill to take pictures which would record historic times,” Johnson said. “I am grateful to people of San Francisco for the inspiration they provided me. And I am so very appreciative of 

this honor from the city I love so much."

“We are so fortunate to see San Francisco history through David Johnson’s lens,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “He captured the energy of street life as well as the protests and marches that would define the civil rights era. We are grateful to be able to honor him.” 

Johnson’s photographs were featured in a 2001 KQED documentary about the Fillmore District. He was awarded the Certificate of Honor in Photography by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 and the Fillmore Heritage Pioneer Award in 2011. His name is engraved in the Gene Suttle Plaza in the Fillmore.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, with approximately 5,000 prints and negatives, is housed at The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. “A Dream Begun So Long Ago,” a biography and coffee table book of his images by his wife Jacqueline Sue, was published in 2012. 

Harvey Milk Photo Center, located in the Harvey Milk Center for the Arts at Duboce Park,  operates the oldest and largest community wet darkroom in the United States. It has been serving the public since 1940. 

To register for Saturday’s dedication ceremony and panel discussion, click here. 



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