A new exhibition at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) highlights the career of Al Smith, a photographer who documented the local jazz scene and the city’s African-American community in the mid-20th century. Titled “Seattle on the Spot,” after the name of Smith’s photography business, the exhibition tells the story of the photographer’s life and work, focusing in particular on the 1940s and ’50s, when Smith was ever-present in the music scene and at community events, photographing with a Speed Graphic camera. We see Smith’s images of patrons and musicians—such as Duke Ellington and Vivian Dandridge—at Seattle’s “bottle clubs,” African-American music establishments that were BYOB because selling alcohol by the drink was illegal at the time. We also see photographs of parades and weddings, youth football teams and women’s social clubs, personal pictures of family and friends, and other scenes from Smith’s community, which revolved around Seattle’s Central District.
Smith had a day job as a mail carrier, his son, Al “Butch” Smith Jr., told PDN at a press preview for the exhibition. The steady work allowed Smith to pursue photography with a degree of financial security, and to pour the money he earned from his photography business back into film, cameras and darkroom materials. Between his personal and commissioned work, Smith amassed an archive of more than 40,000 photographs over his lifetime, creating an important historical record.
In addition to telling Smith’s story, complete with displays of his cameras and a reproduction of his home darkroom, the exhibition also uses Smith’s images to delve into the history of the city’s black residents, and in doing so highlights the photographer’s importance as a chronicler of an otherwise underrepresented segment of the population. Several historians and cultural experts helped develop the show, producing a rich learning experience for visitors. The museum is also asking viewers to help name unidentified people in some of the images. And they’re inviting people to photograph their own communities, putting the images on display as part of the show.
In a city undergoing rapid growth and change, “Seattle on the Spot” is a welcome celebration of a native son, and a history lesson for longtime residents and newcomers alike. —Conor Risch
“Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith”
Through June 17, 2018
Museum of History & Industry
860 Terry Avenue N.
Seattle, WA 98109
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