Walking into “Seattle on the Spot: The photographs of Al Smith,” one is transported into Smith’s world. The sound of Fats Waller singing “The Joint is Jumpin’” fills the space along with hundreds of photographs showcasing the vibrant social scene and everyday life of the Black community in the Central District (CD). The images include a couple dancing the jitterbug for a watchful crowd, a newly married couple beaming, and a child sitting on the shoulders of his father with the majestic Mount Rainier in the background. The exhibition of the late photographers work at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) showcases a fraction of the images he captured throughout his life.
“It gives you a unique and slightly personal peek at a part of Seattle history — geographically, socially, culturally — that was very, very underdocumented,” said MOHAI Curator of Photography Howard Giske. “You don’t get to see this glimpse back into this past much of any other way.”
Curator and historian Quin’Nita Cobbins described Smith’s work as a historical treasure trove: “This exhibit is important because it further demonstrates that Seattle’s Black community does have a history and these stories have to be interwoven into the narrative of the Pacific Northwest.”
Smith was born in 1916 to immigrant parents from Jamaica. He had an ethnically diverse group of friends in the Central District and liked to ride his bicycle as far as Tacoma. He received his first camera as a teenager and quickly grew to love photography. After high school, Smith’s desire to see the world became reality as he traveled the Pacific Ocean as a steward on steamships such as the S.S. President Grant in the 1930s. In 1939 he returned to his hometown of Seattle with his first professional camera. Later he began working at the U.S. Postal Service to support his wife and children, but his camera was always nearby.
In 1942 Smith opened a photography business named “On the Spot,” a phrase commonly used at the time to describe someone who was at the right place at the right time. Smith was a fixture in Seattle’s jazz scene and took thousands of photos of patrons enjoying a night out. His son Al “Butch” Smith Jr. credits his father’s ability to put people at ease.
“He wasn’t judgmental,” said Butch. “If you look a lot at his photos you’ll see expressions on people’s faces welcoming him to their tables. Welcoming way, not to get out of here don’t bother me.”
MOHAI recreated a jazz club complete with video, silhouetted figures holding instruments, tables and a dance floor. Most of the photos in the show are framed, while others are blown up to life-size proportions. In the nightclub images, the men and women wear their Sunday best and every hair is in place. Mostly smiling faces stare back at visitors as they’re enjoying a night out on the town.
The everyday images include a photo of Claude “Sonny” Norris Jr. sitting on a lifeguard stand around 1955. He was the first Black lifeguard and beach manager at Madrona Beach.
Another section is devoted to the Marie Edwards Beauty School, which was the first Black beauty school in the Pacific Northwest. There students learned hairstyling techniques as well as how to perform manicures and facials.
For Cobbins, Smith’s work creates another dimension to the research she’s done on the CD.
“To see the expression on the faces, and what does that say about that particular moment about how they were living their lives in our city in the midst of racial discrimination. How they were actually trying to, you know, forge a family, build a family, build a community, build these kinds of connections,” Cobbins said. “Everyday life that I don’t necessarily get to see in written form.”
Smith taught himself photography and regularly read photography magazines. The exhibit includes a dark room and explains the development process. In 1986, Smith became a volunteer at MOHAI in the photography department. He passed away in 2008, and in 2014 his family donated more than 40,000 photos to the museum. According to Cobbins it’s the largest collection of photos of Black people amassed in Washington state. The exhibit is more than an opportunity to marvel at well-composed photographs; it’s also a cultural study.
“I want people to appreciate his work as a photographer,” Butch said. “I want scholars of African-American history to appreciate the contribution his photos make to the documentary of migration of African-American families from all over the country, especially in the ’30s and ’40s, ’50s in the Seattle area here. I see that as a real important contribution.”
Smith didn’t refer to himself as a documentary photographer, but that’s exactly what his lifetime of work became. Smith may have treated his craft as a hobby, but his photos are much more than that. As the CD changes and the Black population in the Emerald City continually dwindles, his work cements the legacy and contributions of the community. “Seattle on the Spot” is a magical journey of resilience and his work is an irreplaceable gift.
WHAT: “Seattle on the Spot: The photographs of Al Smith”
WHEN: Runs until June 17.
WHERE: Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) 860 Terry Ave N, Seattle
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