Petaluma Museum hosts virtual exhibition of lost photos – Petaluma Argus Courier

WHAT: Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope and Diversity in America, an online exhibition of photography.
WHEN: Sept. 26-Nov. 6
WHERE: PetalumaMuseum.com
OPENING CELEBRATION: A live Zoom event to mark the launch of the exhibit for local folks will take place on Friday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. The event will feature live readings of poems inspired by the photographs in the exhibit. For the Zoomlink and additional information, visit PetalumaMuseum.com/events.
Doug Keister was a teenager, barely 16 years old, and only just beginning to explore photography when he acquired two boxes of old glass negatives a friend had found in a garage in Lincoln, Nebraska. After quickly making some experimental prints, Keister discovered that the 280 plates contained photos illustrating a rich and diverse, widely integrated part of Lincoln, apparently from the early 1900s.
“Thus began the journey,” said Keister, speaking from his home in Chico, where he works as a professional photographer.
Today, those photos have been the subjects of articles and books, a touring museum and gallery show, and now, a virtual exhibition titled “Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope and Diversity in America.”
Beginning Sunday, Sept. 26, the exhibit, curated by Keister and distributed by Exhibit Envoy, will be made available online through a partnership with the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.
“It’s one of the most extraordinary gifts in my life,” said Keister of becoming the accidental caretaker of those photos 56 years ago, especially given that it took decades for him to discover their true significance. Throughout Keister’s eventual move from Nebraska to California, and then to various spots around the state, Keister hung onto those glass negatives, which he estimates weigh about 80 pounds.
Throughout, he often wondered who the collection’s photographer was.
“Then, in 1999, my mother saw an article in the newspaper in Lincoln, about somebody discovering other glass negatives in the African American community there,” Keister said. “If my mother had not clipped that out and sent it to me, with information leading to a Black photographer named John Johnson, it’s possible no one ever would have known these were his.”
John Johnson, who lived from lived from 1879 to 1953, was a Black photographer who used his own Nebraska neighborhood to capture and record the faces and lives of his friends, family and neighbors. He was the son of a Civil War Veteran and a runaway slave, and though it’s not known exactly how his photographs came to be in someone’s garage 12 years after his death, their impact — and the insights they give to a specific time in Black history — has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Numerous people have worked to identify the subjects of the photos, working from public records, using the addresses in the background to zero in on who might have lived there at a particular time. Photos of a department store under construction placed the photos as having been taken in the first half of the 1920s.
“Johnson photographed these people in such an elegant, dignified, noble way,” Keister said, “which is particularly poignant and significant given the segregation at the time, the brutality of the Jim Crow laws, the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Lincoln. The Black population is depicted here in a way that seems intentionally counter to that, defiant of that.”
The virtual exhibit contains more than just the photos. There is a playlist of songs from the time that can be enjoyed while perusing the collection, along with several point-and-click activities, and a great deal of interpretive information about the photos and Johnson himself.
“Absent the pandemic, we might not have chosen to go with a virtual exhibit,” admitted Clint Gilbert, president of the Petaluma Museum Association.
Fortunately, the museum has had a bit of experience pivoting to virtual events during the many months when the museum was closed to the public.
“I doubt we’d have felt ready to accept the challenge of integrating a virtual exhibit into the framework of our website and changing our promotion and publicity patterns without having experienced our digital and online growth during the pandemic,” Gilbert said.
“Black and White in Black and White,” a truly interactive adaptation of the physical exhibit that has been touring for years, was suggested to Gilbert and the board of the museum by Petaluma’s Dorian Bartley. Though just now beginning to reopen to onsite visitors, the museum has been feeling the pressure connect with audiences its lost contact with over the last 18 months, some of whom are still wary of attending an exhibit like “The Imaginative World of William Caldwell,” which officially opened last week.
“This was an opportunity to share an exhibition that was ‘pandemic proof,’” Gilbert said, allowing that the next consideration was just as important. “What do 100-year-old photographs, taken thousands of miles away, have to do with me here in Petaluma?” he asked. “What I finally connected with wasn’t how the pictures looked, but how I felt seeing them. And I turned to poetry to help our audience find their own answers.”
Two months ago, the museum put out a call for local poets to select a photo from the exhibit, and write a poem based on how the image made them feel. Winners have been selected, and they will be performed by the authors at a special Zoom event to mark the exhibit’s opening on Oct. 1.
“This is such an important part of American history,” said Keister, acknowledging that the poetry aspect of Petaluma’s presentation is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the exhibit, which asks viewers to deeply imagine the stories that go with each image, each expression, each face. “These pictures are not static. They have a life to them. Anything we do to bring these extraordinary people to life is a wonderful thing.”
WHAT: Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope and Diversity in America, an online exhibition of photography.
WHEN: Sept. 26-Nov. 6
WHERE: PetalumaMuseum.com
OPENING CELEBRATION: A live Zoom event to mark the launch of the exhibit for local folks will take place on Friday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. The event will feature live readings of poems inspired by the photographs in the exhibit. For the Zoomlink and additional information, visit PetalumaMuseum.com/events.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

source