Being obsessed with vintage cameras, I was immediately drawn to this image of a young photographer shooting a self portrait in a mirror. Once I recognized the camera as a Graflex, Speed Graphic, ubiquitous among photographers in the U.S. during the 40’s and 50’s, my attention turned to the photographer. An African-American in what stereotypically is the domain of white men. His expression, a look of amusement and utter satisfaction in who he is, and what he is doing. His hand on the camera, index finger on the shutter release, complete the connection between man and machine. I can’t help but anthropomorphism the latter as his one eyed companion or a prosthetic extension of the former.
I wondered who this young man was, what was his story? I uploaded the image into Google’s reverse image search. I was amazed at how quickly the search engine served up results.
John W. Mosley, (1907-1969 ) worked as a photojournalist in Philadelphia, Pa. from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Mosley was prolific shooting four assignments a day, seven days a week, getting around the city using public transportation. His photos appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Pittsburgh Courier and Jet Magazine, among other publications and he was also employed by The Pyramid Club, an African-American social club.
Mosley photographed many celebrities including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Wilt Chamberlin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Marian Anderson, Nat King Cole and Muhammad Ali but the majority of his work was of average African-Americans going about their lives. Families picnicking in the park, children dressed for Easter, graduations, Business owners in front of their establishments. He traveled to Atlantic City to document vacationers at the segregated Chicken Bone Beach. Even under segregation and racial oppression Mosley presented a positive depiction of Black America that was largely ignored by the media of the time.
In contrast to his views of an idyllic Black lifestyle Mosley also documented their fight for justice and civil rights. In 1943 he covered the Philadelphia Transportation Company protest against discriminatory hiring practices. As the protest took place at the height of World War II they made the correlation between Racism and Fascism. They questioned why black men could drive tanks in Europe but not trollies Philadelphia.
In 1965 Mosley photographed a rally protesting Girard College’s segregationist admission policy. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the keynote speaker. It would take another three years before Girard would be integrated.
While doing research for a photo show, We Speak:Black Artists Philadelphia 1920s-1970s, to be hung at Woodmere Art Museum, curators kept finding Mosley’s photographs. They found so many that Woodmere’s Director, William Valerio, decided to mount an exhibition, A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley featuring 150 prints.
Mosley’s work was also on display atThe Philadelphia International Airport.
More than 300,000 of Mosley’s negatives and photographs are archived in the Temple University Libraries’ Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. Click Here to view Mosley’s images in the collection.