Jet and Ebony Photography Archive Sold, Will Remain in the Public Eye

Jet and Ebony Photography Archive Sold, Will Remain in the Public Eye

Johnson Publishing Company, the former publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, filed for liquidation in April of this year. There was a worry that their image archive would end up being sold to a private collector and that the images, which represent decades of African American culture and history, would disappear. 

Thankfully, as part of the liquidation, the image archive was sold to The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The foundation conglomerate intends to donate the images to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute. 

The archive contains a very rich collection of the history of African Americans from 1942 to the present. Specifically, but nowhere near exclusively, the archives contain images of the open coffin funeral of Emmett Till, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the lives of African American cultural icons such as Jackie Robinson, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and Muhammad Ali.

The Ford Foundation has claimed that the images are 

. . . to be donated for public benefit and broadest possible access

Although the sale of the archives ensures that the images won't disappear into private hands, the fact that the mechanics of the donation haven't been worked out has created concern that the images won't be in the possession of African Americans. That being said, the public image of the foundations that purchased the images, as well as that of the Smithsonian itself, should assuage those fears.

Knowing Getty's history of selling photography, I truly hope that they'll keep to their word and that 

The archives will be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute, and other institutions, where they will be preserved and digitized, guaranteeing free access both for the general public and for scholars.

Lead image is in the Public Domain.

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12 Comments

This is an important story, thanks for adding coverage of it here. As an African-American photographer and reader of these magazines as I grew up (the latest and Ebony and Jet magazines were always always always on display at any and EVERY barber shop in the hood) I'm glad to know these images will eventually be on display for the public to see and not in the hands of the private collector.

That said, I share the same concerns about ownership of the images. Given the history of disenfranchisement and denial of ownership (and by default, denial of wealth) that is part of the story of African-Americans in this country, even through present day, I believe we should be able to take a critical look at ownership of these images, and have open conversations about who holds the rights to our history, and to telling our stories.

To the author's point though, I am somewhat relieved to hear the archives will be donated to the NMAAHC and trust they will be great stewards and ensure they are put to meaningful use over time.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Couldn't agree about the importance of the story more, Abdul.

My first take was 'oh, no.' My concerns were much the same as yours (albeit, not being part of a historical disenfranchised group, I hope I can be empathetic enough to understand the factors / emotions). I was worried that the images would end up in hands that wouldn't be capable of telling the full story.

Having read more as I prepared the article, as you, I'm much more content with who will be acting as stewards. I appreciate you taking the time to share your take on this.

I enjoyed reading about Darren Walker (Ford Foundation trustee) who talked about not really making it until he was featured in Jet.

Christopher Fuller's picture

Thanks for posting the article in this space.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Happy to! It's an important shift of ownership that we should all be aware of!

Leigh Miller's picture

That was my childhood right there...and Archie comics :-)

Good article bro.

Spy Black's picture

"...The J. Paul Getty Trust..."

Is this organization related to Getty Images? If so that's not good.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

They are related, but are arms length. That was exactly my cryptically concerned comment at the very end as well!
I'm hoping that the Smithsonian's and the Ford Trust's involvement will make a difference this time around

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

It's really not possible to convey the importance of those magazines and the imagery they contained...particularly to people born before in the '80s or earlier.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Considering that they would win a Pulitzer for their coverage of MLK's funeral and the ground breaking images of Till's funeral, these magazines were, and the image archive is still, the history of people and a nation! So important.

Kauwuane Burton's picture

These magazines and images bring back a ton of memories. They were basically the TMZ of their day but with taste. It's how we got a lot of our information about influential African Americans of the day. It's great to hear that these photos won't simply fade away into obscurity. It was always a dream to be able to shoot the cover of one of these magazines. Never made the cover but did have some images published on the inside a few times. Great article and thanks for covering this subject!

This is absolutely outstanding news and I'm very happy to read it. I wish the same type of thing had happened to the recent auction of the original video tapes of humankind's first step onto the moon.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

The Apollo tapes were so upsetting. To quote "The auction house didn't say who bought the recordings." (CNN) I'm not sure why the government didn't exercise eminent domain. After all, the tapes were originally sold by accident and they have wide ranging public value.
My fond hope is that as they were recorded by NASA, they are in the public domain. The tapes themselves are private property, but the content isn't. I guess we'll see.