South Lake Union
Events Calendar

November 20 Events

November 18 - June 17, Museum of History and Industry

Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith

Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith at MOHAI Nov. 18, 2017- June 17, 2018, is an ambitious exhibition that chronicles the African-American community in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit also provides an entry point into national discussions about the history and changing character of Seattle and its evolving neighborhoods.

Legendary photographer Al Smith was an explorer and his camera was the universal key that opened doors and gave him license to go anywhere. Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith, organized by Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and on view Nov 18, 2017 – June 17, 2018, gives visitors a rare peek into Smith’s historically significant collection that chronicles the African-American community during the mid-20th century in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit also provides an entry point into national discussions about the history and changing character of Seattle and its evolving neighborhoods.

Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith is a retrospective of Smith’s work. It honors the collection of more than 40,000 photographs generously donated to MOHAI by the Smith family.

Curated by Howard Giske, MOHAI’s Curator of Photography and a long-time friend of Al Smith, this important exhibit uncovers a collection as unique as the man who created it. ”It is one person’s work but it says a lot about Seattle and its people,” said Giske. “Al was as comfortable in church on Sunday morning as he was in a nightclub on Saturday night.”

For more than half a century, Smith documented the African-American community life in Seattle. During that time, he amassed thousands of prints and negatives (taken between 1940 and 2005), which he stashed in drawers and cabinets and grocery bags in his home.

“Al Smith’s photography chronicled his life as an active, vital member of Seattle’s African-American community,” said Leonard Garfield, MOHAI’s Executive Director. “With great warmth and intimacy he created thousands of remarkable photographs of life in the neighborhood where he was born and where he raised his family—the Central District. Smith’s brilliantly expressive documentary photography captures a community in transition, and subtly raises issues of social equity and inclusion; a topic of great significance today.”

As a teenager, Smith went to sea as a steward with the American President’s Line, sailing to Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Philippines. During his last trip to Asia in 1937, Smith bought a German-made Ikoflex camera and made up for lost time. He began to take his hobby seriously, although he modestly claimed in a 1992 interview that he was “doing nothing special, just shooting pictures…”

“Al wasn’t just somebody with a camera. He was a photographer. And that was his introduction,” said Jackie Lawson, Historian and founding member of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State.

MOHAI’s relationship with Smith goes back to 1986 when Smith volunteered in the MOHAI darkroom. For more than a decade, Smith helped the museum preserve its vintage-photo collection of Seattle history.

Seattle Times jazz writer and author of Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle Paul de Barros, describes Al Smith’s work as “extraordinary.” de Barros said, “When you look at Al’s photographs, you don’t feel like a visitor, but more like a participant, partaking in the joy revealed by his camera.”

Structured in a combination of six thematic sections, Seattle on the Spot takes visitors back in time.

An introduction/background of Al Smith is the first section and acquaints visitors to a humble, but driven photographer. This section provides an outline and background of Smith’s life.

From the introductory area, step into Smith’s Darkroom and explore his workspace—a captivating hands-on area where visitors can look at proof sheets, faux negatives viewable through a loop and a display of the cameras Smith used.

The next section is an immersive Nightclub. Here, visitors step into a theatrical nightclub-like atmosphere that breathes life into scenes of Seattle’s jazz scene of the 1940s immortalized by photos Smith took as a young man. This area includes a video, dance floor, music, interactives, games and artifacts on display.

Moving from the nightclub, visitors explore a more formal presentation of Smith’s work in the Nightclub Gallery section. Smith’s best-known work is from Seattle nightclubs in the Jackson Street district during the early 1940s capturing the musicians as well as reveling patrons, to whom he sometimes sold souvenir photographs. This was a heroic period for Seattle jazz—a wartime scene that ultimately spawned such internationally known artists as Ray Charles and Ernestine Anderson.

The final section focuses on the Retrospective Space. This section brings the discussion of Smith’s work to the present day and highlights the changes in the communities that Smith documented. Visitors will explore how communities are remembered today and have a chance to reflect and add information to Smith’s photos and stories to the oral history station.

“Al Smith just enjoyed people,” said Carol Peoples-Procter, President Black Heritage Society of Washington State. “I think he enjoyed life.  And he wanted to capture it through photos.”

Seattle on the Spot will be supported by unique programing including an exciting opportunity for a group of pre-selected high school students in the Central District to hone their photography skills, and develop personal aesthetic and narrative perspective. Students will curate their work for display in Seattle on the Spot from April – June 2018. Pieces will be on display in the exhibit and posted to MOHAI’s website.

MOHAI has gathered the city’s most influential leaders including former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, Carol Peoples-Proctor, Jazmyn Scott and Al “Butch” Smith Jr. to advise and collaborate on program development for this unique and ambitious exhibition.

Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith is accompanied by an illustrated catalog with contributions by Jacqueline E. A. Lawson, Howard Giske, Al “Butch” Smith Jr., Paul de Barros and Quin’Nita Cobbins. The catalog is co-published by the Museum of History & Industry and the University of Washington Press.

Generous support for Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith is provided by National Endowment for the Arts, The Boeing Company, Laird Norton Wealth Management, MOHAI Exhibits Fund, Mike Repass, 4Culture, Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, ArtsFund, and Gordon & Celia Bowker.

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