Feb 23, 2023 - News

In photos: Black joy and dignity in San Francisco

African-American college students wearing caps and gowns during a graduation ceremony.

College graduation ceremony, 1991. Photo: Clarence Gatson/Gado/Getty Images

Clarence Gatson made thousands of photos of San Francisco’s African American community while working as a photojournalist and production manager for The Sun-Reporter from 1975–1992. After his death in the early '90s, his images —and the stories contained within them — vanished from the public eye.

Why it matters: The struggle to share his work is part of a larger effort to preserve Black visual history.

Flashback: In 2013, Gatson's sister partnered with historian John William Templeton; Naomi Jelks, then-librarian at the San Francisco Public Library's African American Center; Dr. James Lance Taylor; and Gado Images to digitize, research, and caption 5,000 prints.

  • Templeton, Jelks, and Taylor spearheaded the community engagement strategy, creating in-person events for local residents to identify photos.
  • Ten years later, Gado Images' researchers are still working to annotate the full set of prints. Currently, 572 photos have enough metadata to be searchable and licensable through Getty Images.
African-American boy sitting in a park, wearing a cape and holding drumsticks.
1985. Photo: Clarence Gatson/Gado/Getty Images

The big picture: Jelks, who now works as the Racial Equity Manager at SFPL, tells Axios why she values the collection:

  • "Our lives are not just consigned to managing poverty, incarceration, or just the negative things that people sometimes associate with being Black and Blackness ... there's lots of moments of joy, and so [Gatson's ability] to capture that on camera to offer a fuller sense of Black life is super important."

What's next: The growing demand for images of African American history will determine how quickly Gado Images can process the entire collection.

  • Gado Images CEO Tom Smith tells Axios that over the past three years, he's seen a shift away from customers seeing Black history as a "niche topic."
  • "More and more companies, more and more publications, are realizing that depicting the everyday life of this community and communities is essential."

Go deeper: See more moments of Black daily life in San Francisco.


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