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Photographer David Johnson, who chronicled San Francisco's Black culture, dies at 97

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Photographer David Johnson, who chronicled San Francisco's Black culture, dies at 97

“Boy and Lincoln, 1963” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


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The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


“Boy and Lincoln, 1963” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

David Johnson generally wasn’t interested in people posing for his camera.

As the photographer and civil rights activist put it in a 2017 interview at the University of California, Berkeley: “A big smiling photograph? That wasn’t my style.”

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Johnson died at his home in Greenbrae, north of San Francisco, earlier this month. According to his stepdaughter, he was suffering from advanced dementia and had pneumonia. He was 97 years old.

Johnson was the first Black student of the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams and became known as one of the foremost chroniclers of San Francisco’s Black urban culture.

In one of his most famous images, shot early in his career in 1946, Johnson depicts a street corner in San Francisco’s Fillmore District — once a hub for the city’s thriving Black community until redevelopment later in the century forced nearly all of them out.

“Looking South on Fillmore, 1946,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


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The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


“Looking South on Fillmore, 1946,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

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The image has energetic angles and stark contrasts of light and shadow. And it’s shot from above. In the UC Berkeley interview, Johnson said he clambered up four stories on a nearby construction scaffold to get it.

“I focused my camera and took one photograph,” Johnson said. “I was kind of anxious to get this little job over with and go back down to the ground.”

A tough childhood

Johnson was born in 1926 in Jacksonville, Fla., to an impoverished single mother who handed her baby off to be raised by a cousin.

In a 2013 interview with San Francisco member station KQED, Johnson said he got his first camera by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

“I just started snapping pictures around the neighborhood. And I got kind of fascinated with that,” he said.

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David Johnson in 2023 with one of his photographs, “Clarence,” at an award luncheon at UC Berkeley honoring the photographer.

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David Johnson in 2023 with one of his photographs, “Clarence,” at an award luncheon at UC Berkeley honoring the photographer.

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Johnson was drafted into the U.S. Navy right out of high school. He was stationed in San Francisco, falling in love with the city, and was then sent to the Philippines for the remainder of World War II. After returning, he wanted to develop his photography skills in college.

It was 1946, and budding photographers were clamoring to get into the program that master lensman Adams had just launched at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Its star-studded faculty included Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange.

San Francisco-bound

Johnson wanted in. So he sent Adams a letter.

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“I wrote to Ansel and said, ‘I’m interested in studying photography. I have the GI Bill. And I would like for you to evaluate my [application].’ Ansel wrote me back and said, ‘There are no vacancies in the class,’ ” he told KQED.

But a student dropped out, making room for Johnson.

He hopped on a segregated train that took him from Jacksonville to San Francisco. After living in Adams’ house for a while, he eventually found a low-rent room in the city’s Fillmore District and started taking lots of photos.

“Eartha Kitt with Neighborhood Children, 1947,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


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The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


“Eartha Kitt with Neighborhood Children, 1947,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

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Many of these images appeared decades later in a KQED documentary about the Fillmore’s status — and eventual demise — as one of the country’s most vibrant Black neighborhoods.

“He would go to the clubs in the evenings, take incredible photographs of musicians,” said Christine Hult-Lewis, the pictorial curator of special collections at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, which houses the David Johnson archive. “He had very easy relationships with people in the barbershops and the folks in the churches and folks on the streets.”

Johnson said his college instructors encouraged these pursuits.

“Growing up, most of the photographs I have seen of Black people were just not very complimentary,” he told KQED. “I said, ‘My photographs will have Black people photographed in a dignified manner.’ “

Documenting street life, famous figures and civil rights

Hult-Lewis said that as a freelance press photographer, Johnson took candid photos of Black celebrities who came to town, such as Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.

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“Nat King Cole at Fairmont Hotel, 1949,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


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The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

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“Nat King Cole at Fairmont Hotel, 1949,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

And he used his camera to spark conversations about civil rights.

“There’s one really iconic photograph of a woman listening to a speech and she’s got kind of a dubious look on her face, but in her glasses are reflected the American flag,” Hult-Lewis said. “There’s another incredible photograph of a young African American boy sitting, holding an American flag in the embrace of a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.”

Johnson also often participated in direct political action. He attended the 1963 March on Washington, and organized the first Black caucus at the University of California, San Francisco.

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“Reflections in Glasses, 1963,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


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“Reflections in Glasses, 1963,” by David Johnson.

The David Johnson Photograph Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

“He was part of a group that successfully sued the San Francisco Unified School District to compel them to more fully desegregate the schools,” Hult-Lewis said.

Johnson never became a big name like his teacher Adams. By the 1980s he’d stopped taking photos altogether.

But interest in Johnson’s work has grown in recent years, as cities across the country grapple with the negative impacts that urban redevelopment can have. His work is in the collection of major institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was the subject of a solo exhibition at San Francisco City Hall in 2022.

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“The photographs tell life, life as it was then, life that cannot be duplicated or recreated in today,” Johnson’s wife, Jacqueline Sue, told KQED in 2013. “It’s a marker of history.”

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JoJo Siwa Defends 'Karma' Song, Explains How It Became Hers

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JoJo Siwa Defends 'Karma' Song, Explains How It Became Hers

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Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse dies at 73

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Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse dies at 73

Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse.

Muluken Melesse Family


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Muluken Melesse Family


Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse.

Muluken Melesse Family

Renowned Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse died on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., after a long illness, according to his family. He was 73 years old.

The vocalist rose to fame at a time of enormous political and social unrest in Ethiopia, as the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution gave way to a military dictatorship.

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Muluken’s songs from the 1970s and 80s were filled with love and longing for better times.

“He came through at a time when people were really down,” said Sayem Osman, who has contributed articles about contemporary Ethiopian music to blogs and magazines. “He got to the core of people’s hearts.”

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Muluken was born in the Gojjam province of Northern Ethiopia in 1951.

His mother died when he was young, and so he moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, to live with an uncle. But the arrangement didn’t work out. Muluken wound up in an orphanage, where he studied singing with a visiting musician who taught lessons there.

“And Muluken at that time got the [music] bug,” Sayem said.

Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s when he was barely a teenager, and eventually became a big star. Love songs like “Mewdeden Wededkut” (“I Love Being in Love”), “Hagerwa Wasamegena” (“She’s from Wasamegena”), and “Nanu Nanu Neyi” (“Come Here, Girl”) became hits.

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“He’s the king of the love songs for me,” said Sayem. “It’s all about how you treat a woman, how you see a woman.”

Sayem said Muluken’s popularity had a lot to do with the talented female lyricists he worked with on these songs, including Shewaleul Mengistu and Alem Tsehay Wodajo. “Who else but a woman would know how to be described or how to be looked upon?” said Sayem.

Muluken Melesse Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s when he was barely a teenager.

Muluken Melesse Family

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But it was tough to be an artist in a country under military rule. “There was very heavy, heavy censorship,” Sayem said.

Many musicians left Ethiopia. Muluken stuck around for a while. He converted to Evangelical Christianity. Eventually, in 1984, he moved to the United States and settled in the Washington, D.C., area.

He continued performing groovy love songs for a time, before giving them up entirely in order to focus on his newfound faith.

“And that was it. He was done,” said Sayem. “And he never performed this music ever again.”

Instead, Muluken took to singing gospel songs at church events.

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“He was a very good and sincere person, who loved people and feared God,” said Muluken’s widow, Mulu Kaipagyan, also a devoted Christian, in an online statement shared with NPR.

“YeYesus Wetadernegn” (“I’m Jesus’s Soldier”) — one of many songs Muluken Melesse sang after converting to evangelical christianity.

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Even though Muluken turned his back on secular music during his later years, his early work has continued to influence younger generations of musicians.

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“He became like a conduit into getting even deeper into the traditional music of Ethiopia for me,” said Ethiopian-American singer, songwriter and composer Meklit Hadero.

Muluken Melesse as a young vocalist.

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Muluken Melesse family

Meklit’s 2014 version of the folk song “Kemekem” — which the singer describes as “a love song for the person with the perfect Afro” — was inspired by a version Muluken made famous decades ago.

“I felt such a link to him,” she said. “And I will be so forever grateful to him.”

Meklit added she will never be able to get enough of Muluken’s singing.

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“It has so much movement and vibrance in it. It’s alive. You don’t know where he’s going to go. You just are kind of on a river following his tone and it’s captivating,” she said. “The whole human experience was contained within that voice.”

Audio and digital story edited by Jennifer Vanasco; audio produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

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What does rebellious style look like? Enter artist Saturn Risin9

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What does rebellious style look like? Enter artist Saturn Risin9

A bag becomes a different thing entirely when worn by different personalities — similar to how no one perfume smells the same on two different people. To test out this idea, we invited four different artists to style the same bag into their personal look and lifestyle for one day, dreaming up places across L.A. where they would wear it. The bag? The Acne Studios rivet wine box bag from the brand’s spring/summer ’24 collection. It felt like a bag tough enough to withstand a long day in L.A. and lightweight enough to not drag you down.

In the second installment of the series, Saturn Risin9, a singer, performer and DJ, takes the bag to Pirate Studios, where she practices DJ sets ahead of the weekend. With the Acne bag in tow, the multi-hyphenate shows us how their personal style is a reflection of “ambition, being daring, being exciting, and how to bring those things together.”

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m a multihyphenate. I’m a performer, a singer, a DJ, I throw events. I have a charity, Rings Alliance, for trans and queer artists. We’re still getting our footing but you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

Describe your personal style.

I’ve always been really rebellious. And my mom says she knew the moment that she was pregnant with me that I was going to only do what I wanted. I think my style reflects that. Even the things that you would think I would care about — like what’s trending, what the standard of fashion or music is — I never really care. If it hits me, I wear it. And if it sounds good to me, I do it, because I can make anything work. I mean that in life as well as in my music and also in my style. I think my self, my work and personal style all reflect someone that works really hard for themselves and by themselves. It’s a reflection of ambition, being daring, being exciting, and how to bring those things together because it is really remarkable to do that in a world that does not champion and welcome that. (I’m blessed to have found a community and a personal world that does.) My style reflects that person, and my effort toward being great and having fun.

Saturn wears a Tommy Hilfiger jacket, Amazon bodysuit and boots from Maya Shoes of Hollywood. Makeup by Saturn Risin9.

Saturn Risin9 wearing the Acne Studios rivet wine box bag at Pirate Studios.

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I think my self, my work and personal style all reflect someone that works really hard for themselves and by themselves.

— Performer, singer and DJ Saturn Risin9

Talk to me about dreaming up an outfit around this Acne Studios bag.

For the last few years I’ve really been into these really small bags that don’t have a lot of space — I love a clutch size. So when I saw the bag I was excited because it was more spacious and had this rectangular shape so I knew that I could fit a lot of things in it, which meant that I had more options to wear things that allowed for a sleek [look]. I don’t have to wear pockets because my purse can hold it all, so I have these thigh-high boots on. I definitely thought about how flexible [the bag] would be for going out or even traveling because I don’t like to travel with a lot. I like to have as much as I can fit in my purse and still be sexy, cute and ready to go.

How does sense of place inform sense of style? How do you travel through L.A. with style in mind?

I’m usually in what I like to call butch-wares. I definitely like to be comfy when I travel through L.A., especially in the daytime — I’m not trying to put on a look. I also don’t want to be bogged down by the idea that dolls [trans women] need to present super feminine or hyper-femme to be able to pass through life. Passability is not even a concern for me. I just try to be as comfortable as possible because I’m doing so much at all times — why would I want to be uncomfortable on top of working as hard as I work? But, there’s nothing more c— than having a fab bag on you. Sweats or not, a fab bag is a fab bag. Like, actually, let me dress more bummy and pull out the Acne bag.

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Saturn Rising for a "Style It Yourself" feature in Image's April 2024 issue. (Bishop Elegino / For The Times)

Producer: Mere Studios
Makeup: Saturn Risin9
Hair: Malcom Marquez

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