When I was in high school, I landed a part-time and summer job with the weekly newspaper in the small town where I lived. One of my duties was to take some of the dullest pictures imaginable.
I would show up at the garden club meeting or the Grange to record the installation of new officers or the celebration of a longtime leader. The pictures always involved two or three principals and a scattering of stone-faced observers. One could, perhaps, ask the garden club to put some flowers in the picture, but usually, all I did was line the people up and shoot.
I found this to be less than scintillating work. My editor explained to me that pictures with lots of recognizable people in them sold papers. Besides, he said, the paper was a mirror of the community, and, in a sense, it helped create the community. The town was so small each resident got into the paper sooner or later, so everyone was in the picture. Finally, he argued, Rembrandt had done fine work with group pictures of organization members, and there was nothing to stop me from doing the same.
At the time, I felt my editor was laying it on a little thick. Now, decades later, the exhibition "A Million Faces: The Photographs of John W. Mosley," at the Woodmere Art Museum through Jan. 16, proves him right.
Day by day, year by year, Mosley documented events both quotidian and momentous in the life of African American Philadelphia during the middle third of the 20th century. He was a freelancer, paid by the picture, usually by publications and organizations that did not have much money to spend. But Mosley had an eye and an idea. The more than 150 pictures in the show, and online at Woodmere's website (philly.com/mosley), are wonderful as a record, but they are compelling because of Mosley's vision.
Mosley was born in 1907 in North Carolina. He moved to Philadelphia in 1934 and worked there until his death in 1969. He was taking pictures through the Great Depression, World War II, and through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. His photographs documented injustice but rarely showed confrontation. Rather, as in the case of his photos of the mid-1960s campaign to desegregate Girard College, the story was of solidarity in the face of stone walls, iron fences, and police barricades.
When he photographed the stylish black people emerging from a 1949 performance of Rigoletto at the Academy of Music, we notice the furs and the dresses, and, of course, the faces. A label in the show points out what those who first saw the picture probably already knew: This display of elegance was at the academy's side door on Locust Street because, at the time, the Broad Street entrance was for whites only.
Often, Mosley's subject matter was exactly what I despised in that first job - posed shots of people looking pleased with themselves while others looked on. He had a gift for animating such scenes, through his technique, and, I suspect, through his personality. He found a way to make very crowded pictures in which each face is an individual with a spark in the eye.
He was able to find, or create, a moment of emotional intimacy within the least-promising pictures. In a view of members of a congregation on the church steps emerging from a Palm Sunday service, the pastor hands some palm fronds to a young boy in a checked jacket, and nearly everyone else in the crowd seems to be reacting to that gesture.
Similarly, most of the photos he took of celebrities involve interactions with others. Baseball great Willie Mays, with Phillies players Richie Ashburn and Curt Simmons at his side, reaches down to sign a boy's autograph. Ella Fitzgerald has her hair done by Helen "Curl" Harris, prominent local stylist and wigmaker, while another figure lurks in the mirror with an iron.
In a 1952 photo, longtime heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis lolls with friends on Chicken Bone Beach, as the segregated section of Atlantic City was known. A woman reaches over and affectionately places her hand on his left nipple, or maybe his heart. We are used to seeing boxers' bodies pummeled by their opponents, but not being touched so intimately. The photo was taken the year after he was badly beaten in his final fight. This gentle gesture perhaps signaled that he still meant the world to his fans.
A gentle touch is often at the center of Mosley's crowded scenes. The gesture organizes the composition, makes a connection with the viewer, and often connotes passing on wisdom, or at least experience, from one generation to another.
Mosley's work often seems to be about an extended family of black achievers. We see a very young Julian Bond, who would grow up to be a leader of the civil rights movement, posed leaning against the great singer and actor Paul Robeson. Bond later recalled the way Robeson's deep voice vibrated directly into his shoulder.
In a very uncharacteristic photograph of Samuel L. Evans, the legendary power broker reclines on a picnic blanket, smiling with his eyes closed. Above him are small children, members of a later generation of black leadership. The little boy second from the right is Rotan Lee, who would become president of the Philadelphia Board of Education.
Perhaps the most striking of the many sports-related photos in the show is one of a powerful young man competing in the shot put at the Penn Relays in 1955. It is a characteristically diagonal composition, though in this case it is one man, not a group, who crowds the frame. The athlete is Charles L. Blockson, founder of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Library, which owns the Mosley photographic archive and which partnered with Woodmere in creating this exhibition.
Mosley's world, though crowded and full of life, was perhaps a small one. But it was a milieu that, for much of the photographer's life, went mostly unrecognized in publications like the Inquirer. Mosley, however, kept gathering his people, massing them on stairways so you could see their faces, striving to get them all into the picture.
A Million Faces:
of John W. Mosley
Through Jan. 16 at the Woodmere Art Museum, Germantown Avenue and Bells Mill Road. $10, free
on Sundays. Closed Mondays. 215-547-0476, woodmereartmuseum.org.