“Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith” is a grand overview of the work of African-American photographer Al Smith. Shot mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, they reveal a chapter in Seattle cultural history that was hidden from most of the city’s inhabitants at the time.
“Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith,” a grand overview of the work of African-American photographer Al Smith (1916-2008), isn’t just a photography exhibit.
It’s an atmosphere piece.
As you enter it, music by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Count Basie and other jazz biggies plays. Film clips show jazz legends in action. A replica of Smith’s darkroom lets you see how he worked. Wardrobe items from the Museum of History & Industry’s permanent collection — fancy dresses and dapper duds — allow you to savor the fashions of Smith’s heyday.
“Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith”
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through June 17. Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; $5-$19.95 (206-324-1126 or mohai.org).
Still, the photographs are the central focus.
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Shot mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, they reveal a chapter in Seattle cultural history that was hidden from most of the city’s inhabitants at the time. Redlining and segregation practices kept communities of color, whether black, Asian or Hispanic, out of the white mainstream. Minority populations responded by creating a vibrant world of their own — and Smith, the son of two Jamaican immigrants, was there to capture it.
“Seattle on the Spot” selects roughly 250 black-and-white photographs from 40,000 donated to MOHAI by Smith’s family in 2014. Smith was camera-crazy at an early age, and had a serious case of wanderlust.
“Al wanted to see the world,” his son, Al “Butch” Smith Jr., writes in the fine catalog accompanying the show. “In grade school, he rode his bike to Tacoma, and at the age of 12, he hopped freight trains as far as Denver.”
Leaving high school, he worked as a steward aboard steamers sailing the Pacific. In 1941, he married and settled in Seattle, working first at the shipyards in Bremerton and later for the post office. Eventually he opened “On the Spot,” his own commercial photography business, which he ran in addition to his day job.
Looking at his work, you have to wonder when he slept. Camera in hand, he hit Basin Street, the Black and Tan, the Rocking Chair and other after-hours nightclubs, where he caught local players (the Leon Vaughn Band, Ernestine Anderson) and big-time touring acts (Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm) in action.
The joy of the music sings out of the photographs. The tilt of a saxophone, smile of a singer and ecstatic moves of jitterbug dancers are all so electric, they make you want to join in.
Smith’s own favorite was of conductor Lionel Hampton, with his baton raised, levitating himself a good three or four feet in the air. But it has close competition in a shot where Duke Ellington and his band are finishing up a number. Ellington’s hands have sprung off the keyboard with a flourish, drummer Sonny Greer’s arms are raised in a victory “V,” and bassist Oscar Pettiford is swigging from a whiskey bottle, presumably with the strings of his instrument still humming.
Smith’s focus was on the crowd as much as the performers. He reveals a small world where the races could mix at a time when some venues — the Trianon Ballroom, for instance — enforced strict segregation rules. With one or two exceptions, everyone seems in jubilant spirits.
The exhibit does take note of the prejudices of the day. The text accompanying a radiant shot of pianist-singer Hazel Scott acknowledges her activist stance against segregated theaters. “Why,” she asked, “would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?”
There’s also an interactive telephone that lets you dial a number and hear local stories of housing and job discrimination of the time. They make it clear that Seattle institutions — especially banks — were far from prejudice-free. A redlining map from 1936 identifies the entire Central District as either “definitely declining” or “hazardous” to real-estate lenders and investors.
Smith covered the home front, too, and some of the show focuses on friends and family. Weddings, street parades, park outings and mountain hikes all figure in the action. In one hilarious shot, a birthday girl, surrounded by 10 agitated or wide-eyed infants and toddlers, looks horrified by her cake with its single candle on it.
“Seattle on the Spot” was put together by Smith Jr., MOHAI photography curator Howard Giske, Central District historian Quin’Nita Cobbins, and jazz critic Paul de Barros (a former Seattle Times staffer).
The show does a wonderful job of covering all aspects of Smith’s life and career. As Giske notes, “Al was as comfortable in church on Sunday morning as he was in a nightclub on Saturday night.”
Whatever the venue, it’s a pleasure to be in Smith’s company.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Quin’Nita Cobbins’ name.