Doug thought about tossing them into a trash can so many times.
The shoeboxes stuffed with hundreds of century-old photo negatives were heavy, hard to lug around. They took up valuable space in his basement, and they proved difficult to print. Mostly, he couldn't see why they mattered.
He didn't know any of these early 20th century Lincoln residents, these African-Americans dressed up in their Sunday finest.
He didn't know anything about the janitor behind the camera, a man he now compares to Ansel Adams.
The truth is that every time Doug Keister thought about tossing these 280 glass negatives — these anonymous photos he bought off a buddy for $15 in 1965 — something tugged him away from that thought.
Once or twice a year, he'd find himself back in his California basement. He would take out a negative and hold it up to the light and wonder.
“If they were just studio portraits, I would've tossed them,” he says. “But there was a quality to them, a way of capturing people in their environment. A peek into these strangers' lives.”
Thanks to a chance discovery, an old newspaper story, some dogged work by a local historian and a surge in interest from historical photo experts, the whole country will soon have a chance to peek into these Lincoln lives.
The photos, taken by a long-forgotten son of a slave, have already been unveiled at a fancy exhibit at a California university.
Starting in 2015, they will appear on a much larger stage: the Smithsonian's new museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Then we all will have a chance to look into the lives of early 20th century African-Americans living in Nebraska. We will have a chance to think about what they have endured and where they are trying to go.
“You can read about it and hear people talk about it, but to actually see the images is something entirely different,” Smithsonian curator Michele Gates Moresi told the museum's magazine this month.
Says Keister: “There's nothing like this that has ever come out of the heartland. It's a treasure.”
This treasure hunt started innocently enough 48 years ago, when Keister was a teenager just getting into photography. He knew a friend who found old photos at garage sales and then resold them. He decided to buy a box of glass negatives for $15.
It turned out that some of the negatives were shots of old buildings — like the famous Miller and Paine Department Store — as laborers built them in downtown Lincoln at the dawn of the 20th century.
A teenage Doug printed some of these photos and sold them to history buffs around town. Then he graduated from Lincoln Southeast High School, took some photography classes at UNL and moved to California.
In 1971, he returned to his parents' house in Lincoln, loaded up the shoeboxes of negatives and his other belongings in a car, and drove back to California. The negatives went in his basement.
There they sat and collected dust for the next 28 years, until 1999, when Doug's mom sent him an envelope in the mail.
Inside the envelope: A yellowing story from the Lincoln Journal Star that told of a recent discovery of three dozen historically important photos taken of the city's black community between 1910 and 1925.
Doug looked at the old photos that accompanied the story. He lumbered down his basement stairs and looked at his photos.
The style looked the same. The poses looked the same. The canvas background used in some of the photos looked the same.
He scanned and emailed some of his photos to people at the Nebraska Historical Society. They wrote back. This is a big deal, they told Doug.
The photos are a big deal because they document the life of Great Plains blacks — a history that is largely undocumented because of the scarcity of surviving photographs. They are a big deal because they show that, a half-century after the Civil War, something is brewing inside Lincoln's black community.
The subjects are often photographed wearing suits and gowns and hats. They are often photographed holding books, to show that they are educated.
They connect to a post-World War I cultural explosion of black musicians, authors and artists who moved north and worked to shed the shackles of slavery and post-Civil War servitude. The people in these photos look proud. In one photo, a Lincoln woman holds up a book at an angle so you can see her hairdo and the similar hairdo of the woman on the book's cover.
“She's showing you, 'I'm just as good as this white woman,'” Keister says.
And the photographs are a big deal, Doug thinks, because they are really, really good.
He couldn't believe it when he began to print the photos, one by one, in order to show them at a photo exhibit in California.
This photographer understood light in a professional way. He understood angles, and detail, and emotion.
In one photo of a mother and son, you can see that the son has tear-stained cheeks.
Doug knows photography — he has published 39 books on subjects such as photos of Victorian houses and photos of Paris cemeteries.
He knew what he was looking at was greatness. He just didn't know whose greatness.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
A Lincoln historian named Ed Zimmer dug into the mystery and eventually learned that the photographer was John Johnson, the son of an escaped slave. Johnson became a janitor, laborer and photography buff who had taken thousands of pictures around Lincoln in the early 20th century.
“This is a guy who is either blessed with a gift or somehow learned,” Doug says. “He's doing everything right. In my mind, in time, he'll be as important (to early photography) as any of the great ones.”
The Smithsonian's stamp of approval won't hurt. The museum received 60 prints from Doug and plans to show them in its new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.
In the meantime, Doug says he's open to selling some of the negatives to a collector or other museum.
You won't get them for $15 this time around: Several appraisers have judged the collection's worth to be somewhere between $100,000 and $1 million.
“I'm excited for John Johnson ... to be put onto a national stage,” Doug says. “I'm excited for something this significant to come out of the middle of the country and finally start to get its due.”
So does Doug ever wake up at night in a cold sweat, thinking about how he almost chucked a chunk of history and a six-figure collection into a trash can?
“Let's just say that I'm really glad that I'm a pack rat.”
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