The Pictures to Prove It: Engaging History with Jim Alexander
by D. Amari Jackson
Imagine making a quantum leap back through time and hanging out with Romare Bearden as the iconic artist graced the historic Neighborhood Arts Center in Atlanta. Or gathering on the steps of Spelman College with Gwendolyn Brooks, Pearl Cleage, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni as they excitedly surrounded newly inaugurated college president Johnnetta Cole. Or hovering above thousands from a raised signpost on New York’s Amsterdam Avenue outside St. John’s Cathedral to witness the funeral of the legendary Duke Ellington. Or risking death by breaking away from a rally against hate in the notoriously racist town of Tupelo, Mississippi, to confront the Ku Klux Klan with activist Skip Robinson at a location where no one was watching.
Unlike most of us, Jim Alexander doesn’t have to imagine. He was there. He has the pictures to prove it.
“I documented things I was interested in, or things I was involved in, or things I was mad about, or things I love, like music,” reveals Alexander, noting his affinity for “Black culture and human rights. If there’s a March, rally, concert, or something like that going on, I go and shoot.”
He has done so for over 60 years. Along with visually documenting such legendary figures as Angela Davis, Miles Davis, and Amiri Baraka, the award-winning photographer, teacher, and activist has mentored countless others in photography and social justice, be it in the community or at institutions like the Yale University School of Art and Architecture. In 1972, while teaching at Yale, Alexander created the Freedom Arts Communications Team (F.A.C.T.), a collective of Black artists who managed a visiting artist program serving New Haven residents. In 1977, he was named photographer-in-residence at Atlanta’s Neighborhood Arts Center. In 1985, Alexander was appointed photographer-in-residence at what is now Clark Atlanta University and, three years later, cofounded First World Bookstores which, at its height, included five stores specializing in African American culture. In 1995, he was the first artist chosen for the Atlanta Masters Series by City Gallery East and, on October 18, 2000, Alexander was presented the Photojournalist of a Lifetime award for his documentary work by JOCADA.
But for all the spry 85 year-old’s extraordinary life experiences and his superior knowledge of the art of photography, the main thing separating Alexander from the hordes of other camera-wielding image-takers is his commitment to not only watch and capture, but take part. Comparable to the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics where the observed is influenced by the acknowledged presence of the observer, Alexander characterizes himself as a “participant observer” who photographed “what I wanted. I didn’t shoot a lot of assignments, given I wasn’t interested in being a media photographer.” Rather, he commonly employed his lens to highlight or advance a cause, be it the Black power, Black arts, civil rights, or antiwar movements. “Oh, I was involved in a lot of the stuff,” affirms Alexander, before clarifying he “wasn’t much of a joiner” but participated with, befriended, and supported organizations ranging from international human rights groups to the Black Panthers.
Early on, some close to him questioned his focus on causes over assignments. His mentor, the iconic Gordon Parks, who he’d met through a program involving Parks’ son, had once told him, “Nobody is gonna pay you to just run around and shoot whatever it is you want to shoot, James.” But Alexander, who lacked a college degree, had a plan to go to photography school, “get that piece of paper” and teach photography while doing his own photodocumentary work. Twenty years later—long after attending the New York Institute of Photography and being hired by Yale University to teach photography to students—Alexander opened an exhibit on the legacy of the blues that Parks attended at Atlanta’s Apex museum. “So we walked through all the pictures as people would try to come up and talk to him, but he would just wave them off,” remembers Alexander. “When we were finished, he said to me, ‘Well, Jim, it looks like you ran around and shot what you wanted to shoot.” A smiling Alexander admits “that made me feel really good, hearing that from him.”
The shooting commenced with a bet. Upon enlisting in the Navy in 1952, the Waldwick, New Jersey native won a game of dice against a white recruit at boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland. When the latter could not pay the $10 bet, he instead gave 18-year-old Alexander a boxed camera to hold as collateral until payday. Once payday came, the recruit didn’t want to part with his $10, the extent of his pay. “He said, ‘Man, keep the camera, I ain’t shootin’ no pictures,” recalls Alexander, adding the recruit then confided that “my mother made me bring it. I ain’t shootin’ no pictures.”
But Alexander did. He immediately put his new camera to use, taking pictures of fellow sailors and selling them for fifty cents each, despite costing pennies to produce. As a hustler, gambler, and drinker, the camera became the young Alexander’s latest tool for engaging people and making money. After camp, he was transferred to a naval base in Charleston, South Carolina to train as a diesel engineman. There, a naval base photographer was impressed by Alexander’s abilities and began tutoring him in large format and 35-millimeter photography.
Four years later, after touring numerous bases throughout the country, Alexander was discharged before returning to Paterson, New Jersey, and leaving photography behind—literally. The hundreds of photos he’d taken during his service years were left at his California base home, never to be seen again.
Worse, what Alexander failed to leave behind was his growing problem with alcohol. In early 1964, while hustling, running an underground gambling network, and living with a cousin, the heavy drinker had a catharsis. “I woke up one morning and went to the dresser to get a drink,” remembers Alexander, who “always had a bottle around. I poured some wine in a cup and when I went to drink it, I heard this voice saying, ‘Boy, you’re killing yourself.’ I heard the voice plain as day. I put the cup back down.”
That February, one of Alexander’s gambling associates and former drinking buddies—an alcoholic who’d bottomed out seven months prior, before his family intervened—convinced the struggling 29-year-old to join him in Springfield, MA and get his life together. Alexander stayed for four months, working for his friend’s brother in a sheet rock business. “I had gotten that thing off of me, and was ready to come back to Jersey,” says Alexander, who then rented a furnished apartment in Clifton, away from the negative influences of Paterson. While making good money detailing cars, he picked up photography once more as a way of passing time and staying sober. He enrolled at the New York Institute of Photography and, on a bus ride to school, met a fellow photographer who worked for a filmstrip producer in Jersey and invited Alexander to visit. Soon after, Alexander began volunteering for the studio, which produced educational content on the civil rights movement, while earning his degree in commercial photography. His work attracted attention and he began compiling a list of increasingly high-profile clients, eventually adding the likes of Johnson Publishing Company, Ford Motor Company, and the City of Paterson.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The impact on Alexander was substantial as he produced “Spirits/Martyrs/Heroes,” an ambitious collection of work spanning decades, civil and human rights movements, politics, music, art, and everyday advocates of social justice.
“Some can just take pictures and not get involved, but Jim was always passionate about reading, being a lifelong learner, and representing his people,” says Dr. R. Candy Tate, Assistant Director at Emory College Center for Creativity and Arts. An art historian and longtime mentee of Alexander, Tate sits on the board of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and runs a non-profit dedicated to the same. She stresses the relevance of Alexander’s “participant observer” role and how his historic collection was sparked by “seeing King misrepresented in newspapers.” This “started him on his path to documenting spirits, martyrs, and heroes and, from that point on, it became what he was about.” While others, continues Tate, “might just sit and observe, Jim was involved in making change” and fully understood “the power of the lens.”
Such powerful sentiment is further captured by graphic designer-photographer Renay Nailon in her biographical sketch of Alexander. “A photo can be taken to build or it can be taken to destroy and that decision rests within the hands of the photographer,” penned Nailon, who has worked with Alexander for a decade. “Alexander understood the effects his photography could have on the psyches of the viewer and the subject.”
Tate understands the effect Alexander has on those he mentors. “I like to credit Jim with me being who I am,” says the successful Atlanta native, who once left the city to attend grad school in Wisconsin. The summer she returned, “I was at a festival in Piedmont Park and met Jim and learned about photography and about our history. It’s funny, because I was going to a majority school, and he would always laugh and say, ‘You know, I don’t have more than an eighth-grade education.’ But he was teaching me more than my teachers had ever taught.”
In the early 70s, while teaching at Yale, Alexander was reminded of the same when a white student made the mistake of addressing him as “Dr. Alexander.”
“Those who knew me thought that was funny and started joking about my ‘eighth-grade education,” recalls Alexander, laughing. He reports how the stunned student left the class for the dean’s office to complain that his photography teacher didn’t possess “a terminal degree.” It later came out that the dean, who was well aware of Alexander’s superior knowledge of photography and culture, told the student that if he didn’t get back to class, his career at Yale would soon become “terminal.”
In 1971, Alexander opened a photo studio showcasing the works of other photographers along with his own. Before long, the New Haven studio became a gathering spot for students, artists, activists, and the surrounding community. It further served as a base for his development of F.A.C.T., which included visual artists, musicians, media professionals, poets, stage actors, and community advocates. The collection worked with local schools, established a community arts festival, and instituted a visiting artist program for the local community.
By the mid-70s—after Alexander moved south to direct audiovisual communications for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives—Atlanta’s increasing involvement in the Black Arts Movement had coalesced with mayor Maynard Jackson’s establishment of the Neighborhood Arts Center. In 1977, he was named photographer-in-residence at the NAC and began documenting and preserving the institution’s real-time history. A decade later, upon earning the same position at Clark College, Alexander produced “Duke and Other Legends: Jazz Photographs by Jim Alexander,” an exhibit boasting 50 classical jazz musicians touring 13 cities under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation.
In 1988, Alexander’s affinity for reading and Black culture prompted his cofounding of First World Bookstore in Atlanta, which quickly grew to a five-store chain before shutting down in 1994 amidst changing industry practices and technologies. A year later, Atlanta’s City Gallery East hosted a retrospective exhibition of more than 200 of Alexander’s photographs, “Jim Alexander: Telling Our Story.” The historic exhibition was on display for the 1996 Olympics.
Telling his own stories was something Alexander had consistently dedicated his career to. Back in the 70s, as he was preparing his own photos for an exhibit, Alexander was stunned when his legendary mentor, Gordon Parks, revealed that he couldn’t do exhibits without asking for access to the negatives. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t have them. That was stuff I shot for Life magazine and they own all of it.” Disillusioned, yet inspired, Alexander immediately went out and bought a book on photography and the law given “I had already pledged myself to documenting us for us. And I thought, ‘Well, so much for being a great photojournalist like my mentor, because I want to keep my negatives.”
“One thing he always stresses is to tell your own story and document everything you do,” says Nailon, invoking Alexander’s remarkable and lengthy legacy of recording history and African American culture. “So I know that actually owning the rights and the intellectual property to your work has been something that is just incredibly important to him. And making sure that ownership stays within our community.”
Nailon further acknowledges Alexander’s 60-year commitment to representing and preserving “all facets of Black life,” and to “educating ourselves about ourselves.”
“I know it was extremely important for Jim to chronicle Black life, show it in a beautiful light, show it for what it is.”
(Interested in photography, click here)
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