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Images From L.A. : A Day-in-Black-Life Exhibit at the Museum of African American Art

February 18, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

On Jan. 18, the day the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a well-dressed, black urban professional couple left their home in the View Park section of Los Angeles to get into the matching Mercedes-Benz autos in their garage.

That same day, in a cafe in another part of the city, a bearded man in a baseball cap held a newspaper, but stared away distractedly into the shadows. Elsewhere, a beaming motion picture director worked behind her cluttered desk at Columbia Pictures in Burbank.

Those scenes are among 120 black and white photos from an exhibit called "A Day in the Life of Black Los Angeles," which will open Friday at the Museum of African American Art, located in the May Co. building at 4005 Crenshaw Blvd.

Diversity of Experience

Curators for the exhibit say it attempts to portray the diversity of black experience during one day in Los Angeles. In keeping with that goal, the 10 black photographers asked to contribute to the documentary-style vision focused widely: on work and recreation, worship and street life, buppies (black urban professionals) and the homeless.

"The whole idea is that we never had a chance to see life as it exists in the black community on a day-to-day basis," said Roland Charles, a Los Angeles commercial photographer and gallery owner who is one of two curators for the exhibit. "What we see regularly is crime and drugs as perpetuated in the media. No one is creating a chronology of the community, and hopefully this will be the beginning of that."

The idea for the exhibit developed during a chance meeting of the curators at a restaurant in the Crenshaw Square shopping center last December. They did not have much time to organize, Charles said, because they wanted to shoot the pictures on the observance of Dr. King's birthday and have the exhibit in place in February, which is Black History Month.

Despite the late notice, Thomas L. Wright, co-curator of the exhibit, said the photographers reacted enthusiastically because the project gave most of them a chance to focus their lenses on a subject they had always wanted to investigate.

'My Dream Assignment'

"I said, 'Am I interested? Are you crazy?' " said Los Angeles photographer Karen Kennedy. "You don't have to pay me. You don't have to buy my film. Just let me do it. It was my dream assignment. To take a day and travel the city and show my side of it."

Another Los Angeles picture taker, James Jeffrey, grew up in Memphis and was there when King was slain in 1968.

"It was something I said I had to do," he said of the assignment. "He (King) was in my city when he died fighting for the garbage men. . . . We don't get paid. We just get to make our comments on something that has affected some of us in very special ways."

Nathaniel Bellamy was asked to cover the downtown area. The photographer, whose third-floor studio is just east of Little Tokyo, said he started walking the streets of Los Angeles at 6 a.m. A sociology graduate from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, he said he did not want to be stereotypical about his images.

"We have a lot of homeless people who are easy to take advantage of visually," he said. "I wanted to show . . . that even in that condition, life goes on. They laugh, they play, they have love stories.

"I found a great couple who were playing catch adjacent to City Hall. . . . They were very much in love and had hopes that they would get jobs and a place of their own. I got one picture of them hugging. It was very tender."

Jeffrey journeyed through Los Angeles to his assignment in Pasadena, where he headed straight for the barbershop, "the unofficial ministry of information in the black community," he explained. There he took a picture of two men in the afternoon shadows talking to the barber and waving to a pedestrian.

After picking up valuable information about where to explore in Pasadena, he took another shot of two high school students headed for a demonstration at City Hall. "They could not even vote but they were able to use their constitutional rights," he said. "That's the type of thing Dr. King stood for."

The help that Jeffrey received from the community was not unusual. Don Cropper, a Palms photographer assigned to take pictures in West Los Angeles, also said the community responded enthusiastically to his presense. Cropper thinks the photographers' efforts and the community responses meshed so well that the process should be repeated.

"I think this should be done at least once a year," he said. "There were so many things not covered. . . . Law enforcement wasn't covered. No one actually documented the photographers. It would have been nice if someone had shot pictures of their work. What we did could be improved 1,000-fold."

After the exhibit closes in late March, the curators would like to take it to the Soviet Union. "I would like to send it because of . . . what they (Russian people) don't know about the extended family, which is black America," said Wright, a film and television producer and director.

"What they hear is that blacks are star entertainers and athletes. Something they can relate to is the community itself and how it exists on a social level."

The free exhibit will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Thereafter it will be shown every Thursday through Sunday until March 27 during these hours: Thursdays, noon to 8 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.

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