John Johnson (1879-1953)

1879, Lincoln, Nebraska – 1953, Lincoln, Nebraska

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John Johnson, born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1879, dedicated his artistic career to recording the city’s African American community through photography. His images are important because they portrayed African Americans with respect and pride during the early 1900s and are some of the only ones in existence today. Son of a runaway slave and Civil War veteran, Johnson graduated from Lincoln High School in 1899 where he is pictured with the track team that year. He then attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln for several semesters. He worked as a Post Office janitor, drayman, and photographer, living with his widowed mother until the early 1920s. In 1918, he married widow Odessa Price.

His black and white photographs, made between 1912 and 1925, include family portraits, parades, building sites, and train wrecks. Aspects that set him apart were his skill at creating images with high contrasts between black and white, his use of space and composition, and his handling of natural light, all showing mastery of the glass plate negative process. Johnson’s family portraits are careful compositions with relaxed sitters, giving his images intimacy and warmth. In 1938, he compiled an extensive listing of the African American residents of Lincoln and their occupations entitled ‘Negro History of Lincoln 1888-1938’ for National Negro History Week. He died in Lincoln in 1953, the same year as his wife.

John Johnson was included in the exhibition A Greater Spectrum: African American Artists of Nebraska 1912-2010 on view at the Museum of Nebraska Art from December 4, 2010 to April 3, 2011.