BEGINNING IN THE MID-20TH CENTURY, Johnson Publishing dominated the media landscape disseminating images of African Americans that defined black identity during an unprecedented period of progress and change. The photography published in Ebony and Jet magazines established a visual language and black aesthetic that came to represent the African American experience.
It’s hard to put a price on the history of a people, and yet here we are. The photography and media archive of Johnson Publishing Company—founder of Ebony and Jet magazines—is for sale. The unrivaled visual archive of African American history and culture is going on the auction block this week. Bidding starts at $12.5 million.
Transparencies featuring images by Moneta Sleet Jr., from the exhibiiton “The Black Image Corporation.” | Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
More than 4 million images and nearly 10,000 hours of video and music dating to 1948 are included in the archive. The African American experience is documented from the post-World War II period to the civil rights era, through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and the turn of the 21st century. Images of Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Sammy Davis Jr., Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nelson Mandela, and Prince are represented. Bids for the singular collection are due July 15 and the sale is July 17.
The auction comes in the wake of Johnson Publishing filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April. Miriam R. Stein, the trustee of the bankruptcy estate, was put in change of the company’s assets. Hilco Streambank is conducting the sale in Chicago on behalf of the trustee.
CHICAGO-BASED JOHNSON PUBLISHING was established by John H. Johnson in 1942. Modeled after Life magazine, Johnson founded Ebony in 1945 and the digest-style Jet in 1951. Over the years, with his wife Eunice Johnson, he started other relatively short-lived publications, including Negro Digest (prior to Ebony in 1942), Ebony Jr., and Ebony Man. For more than a decade, the company also produced a syndicated television show, Ebony/Jet Showcase (1982-1993). Under Johnson Publishing, Ebony and Jet circulated for seven decades.
Johnson said he founded Ebony to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.” The image-rich magazine reflected the lives of middle-class African Americans, showcased celebrities, artists, and entertainers, and documented key moments in American history.
Johnson said he founded Ebony to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”
The magazines focused on African American news, culture, and society, reporting on civil rights actions in the South, challenges facing cities, black fashion and beauty, and notable weddings. Coverage included groundbreaking moments such as the 1963 March on Washington, and African American firsts in a variety of fields, including science, business, the arts, and sports. The publications pushed cultural norms by featuring interracial celebrity marriages and showcasing a Jet Beauty of the Week, in which young women were photographed in swimsuits.
Ebony and Jet also published images that illustrated to the nation and the world, the hatred of white racism and the lethal actions that were going unpunished. Photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body lying in an open casket, were published in the Sept. 15, 1955, issue of Jet magazine.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., longtime Ebony magazine photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-1996), captured a sorrowful Coretta Scott King holding her daughter Bernice at her husband’s funeral in 1968. The image won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize. Sleet was the first black man to win a Pulitzer and the first African American recognized with the distinction for journalism.
The archive features unforgettable photographs that appeared in the magazines along with a substantial amount of material that is unpublished. The collection includes:
- 3.35 million negatives and slides
- 983,000 photographs
- 9,000 audio/visual items
- 166,000 contact sheets
LIKE SO MANY OF ITS PEERS in the publishing industry, Johnson Publishing struggled to maintain its business as the media industry underwent a transformation and the economic downturn loomed. Digitization encroached on print publications and mainstream media increased its coverage of African Americans. Linda Johnson Rice, the founder’s daughter, was charged with navigating this new media landscape.
Major Johnson Publishing assets have been offloaded in the past decade. The headquarters building in downtown Chicago was sold in 2010. Designed by African American architect John Warren Moutoussamy, it was declared a city landmark in 2017. The print version of Jet ceased publication in 2014. In 2016, Ebony magazine, ebony.com, and jet.com were purchased by Clear View, a black-owned private equity firm based in Austin, Texas.
The company’s holdings also include assets related to Fashion Fair cosmetics and Ebony Fashion Fair, the traveling charitable fashion show (1958-2009) featuring couture looks by European labels and African American designers.
The contents of Ebony and Jet have long-inspired artists, including Ellen Gallagher, Godfried Donkor, and Lorna Simpson, whose made extensive use of images of black women from the magazines in her paintings and collages. As the company has fought to survive, its attention among artists and arts organizations has grown.
In fall 2014, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet, and Contemporary Art” featuring works by more than a dozen artists. For the exhibition, Hank Willis Thomas created two text paintings, “Ebony Life” and “Jet People,” meaningful labels referencing the mainstream counterparts to the Johnson publications.
Earlier this year, Ebony’s test kitchen was made available. In May, a proposal from the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn was accepted. The museum plans to feature the kitchen, which includes all the 1970s-era components of the space, in a forthcoming exhibition titled “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.”
Beginning in 2012, Johnson Publishing Company donated more than 15,000 items from the archives to the Rebuild Foundation, which was established by Theaster Gates. The holdings encompass “books, periodicals, ephemera, paintings, and sculpture. The archive also includes original furnishings and interior design elements custom-designed for JPC’s downtown Chicago offices by Arthur Elrod.”
The Chicago-based contemporary artist has developed a number of exhibition and presentations around the materials and the company’s legacy. The publisher’s reference library is permanently displayed floor to ceiling in a glass-walled space at the Rebuild Foundation, which is housed in the Stony Island Arts Bank.
“Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Prada Foundation explores photographs from the collection by Sleet and Isaac Sutton. Last year, “A Johnson Publishing Story” was on view at the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago.
IN 2015, JOHNSON PUBLISHING had the archive appraised and the value was estimated at $46 million. The struggling company used the prized archive as collateral to secure a loan to keep it afloat.
According to the Chicago Tribune, George Lucas and Mellody Hobson are among the company’s creditors. Their company, Capital V Holdings, loaned Johnson Publishing $12 million in 2015.
“The bankruptcy auction is seeking to recover at least $13.6 million owed to secured creditors George Lucas and Mellody Hobson…,” the newspaper said. “The filmmaker and his financier wife are free to bid on the archives using the $13.6 million owed as credit, but would receive the full collection in a foreclosure if no other bidder steps up.”
Whether the archive is acquired by Lucas and Hobson or is sold to another party, many are hoping it is donated to a museum or library where it can be preserved and studied. It would be a tragedy if the collection ended up in private hands inaccessible to the public.
When the sale was announced last month, Gabe Fried, CEO of Hilco Streambank, said in a statement: “The buyer of this archive has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire one of the most unique and important collections documenting African American history ever to come to market.” CT
FIND MORE about the sale of the Johnson Publishing Company archive
READ MORE about the significance of the Johnson Publishing archives at Perspectives on History, published by the American Historical Association
“Theaster Gates – The Black Image Corporation” accompanies his exhibition exploring the Johnson Publishing archives, which was organized by the Prada Foundation. Published to coincide with the exhibition, “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” features full-color images and contributions from Studio Museum in Harlem Director Thelma Golden, curator Lauren Haynes, and artist Hank Willis Thomas, among others. “Lorna Simpson Collages” features collage portraits inspired images from Ebony and Jet magazines.
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