Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Ask a well-informed Philadelphian who it is that photo­graphs local society, and the answer will probably be a resounding “Fabian Bach­rach.” Few people know that for more than thirty years – from 1936 to 1967 – a Black photographer, John W. Mosley, was the photographer for mid­dle and professional class Black Philadelphians, and that virtually every significant social event among them was framed and recorded through his camera lens. He dominated in part because of his incredi­ble energy for work. The Mos­ley archive at Temple Univer­sity’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection houses approximately three hundred thousand four-by-five inch negatives and about thirty thousand original prints – all produced by the photographer himself, for he never used an assistant or a processing lab. The manilla packets which hold each shooting session’s batch of negatives indicate that the energetic photographer sometimes covered four differ­ent events on the same day. On February 1, 1954, for exam­ple, Mosely photographed a dance group at the YMCA, Freedom Day ceremonies at the Liberty Bell in Indepen­dence Hall, the Apex Beauty School candidates for Miss Valentine, and socialite Mrs. Hill – a productive and busy day for a man who never owned a car! People who knew Mosely – and quite a few older Black Philadelphians remem­ber him-frequently comment, “Mosely, he was everywhere.”

John Mosely had excellent connections to the institutions which contributed to the strength and solidity of Phila­delphia’s Black community in the 1940s and 1950s, and these contacts facilitated his passion for taking pictures. For in­stance, he was official photog­rapher and a member of the Pyramid Club, one of the most elite and prestigious Black organizations in the city. As photographer, Mosley pro­duced the five photographic annuals which the club issued in the late forties and early fifties; in addition, his camera recorded a wide variety of Pyramid Club events and activities, as well as weddings, anniversaries and birthdays of its members. He was also the unofficial resident photogra­pher for the Christian Street YMCA at 1724 Christian Street, a century old institu­tion serving its primarily Black neighborhood in South Phila­delphia. For many years, Mos­ley maintained a small office and dark room in the YMCA until a disastrous fire in 1953 destroyed his quarters, and, according to one source, a number of his prints and negatives. A good many of Mos­ley’s photographs show sports events at the Y, fundraising and awards dinners, swimming parties, dances and the like.

A third important social focus for the Black middle class in Philadelphia during Mosley’s era was the Penn Relays, a week-long track and field meet each spring at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field. Here Black society turned out to cheer on friends, brothers, sisters and favorites, as well as to meet and to be seen. Mosley’s work at the Penn Relays for more than three decades contributed to both sports and social his­tory, for he caught before his lens many of the Olympians and star athletes who com­peted, as well as the fashion­ably dressed spectators who swarmed to this major social occasion. Add to these institu­tions the numerous Black churches, their Sunday schools, special holiday serv­ices and activities, choirs, auxiliaries and youth groups; Black professional organiza­tions of teachers, nurses, gov­ernment workers, police and the like; and the innumerable volunteer groups of college alumni, Greek letter organiza­tions, Elks, sports and social clubs, political and civic orga­nizations, and only then can one begin to understand why Mosley was such a busy man.

Because of connections such as the Christian Street Y, the Pyramid Club and the Penn Relays, Mosley never lacked individual clients . Bob Queen, retired editor of the Philadelphia Independent, one of four Black Philadelphia news­papers which carried photo­graphs by free-lance photographers including Mos­ley, recalls how people would approach the photographer when he was shooting a grad­uation or a sporting event and arrange for his photographing their daughter’s sweet sixteen party or parents’ fiftieth anni­versary. Queen is one of sev­eral friends who chauffeured the photographer to some of his filming sessions, for his active business extended far beyond Philadelphia. His ex­urban photographs comprise a keen record of segregated culture in mid-twentieth cen­tury America. Mosely cap­tured Blacks sunning on Atlantic City’s thoroughly segregated “Chicken Bone Beach.” He photographed graduation and special occa­sions at the area’s Black colleges-Lincoln in Chester County and Cheyney in Delaware County – portraying Albert Einstein teaching a class on Lincoln’s campus and a homecoming queen in an equally accomplished photo­graph at Cheyney. The few extant photographs of Mosley at work – he wasn’t fond of having his picture taken – show him draped in cameras, a press pass tucked in his hat band and, perhaps, a wan smile on his face.

While Mosley did not leave behind any clue to his princi­ples as a photographer, an article about him in the Phila­delphia Afro-American, quoted him, “I found out by a trial and error method, that you have to be sure that the right people are together – whether a certain combination of per­sonalities is friendly or resent­ful of each other.” According to several former editors, Mosley did not submit for publication photographs which he felt would embarrass his clients, suggesting that Mosley thought about two types of chemistry: the chemistry of his home darkroom and the hu­man chemistry of his subjects. The quotation shows as well his sensitivity to the people who came before his lens, his recognition that the best pho­tographs radiated to the viewer some of the magic felt by the subject at the moment of exposure. Most of Mosley’s pictures are of people who are aware that they are being photographed, a situation which often leads to predictable, sometimes coy and often un­memorable images, similar to those met in family albums and home movies. But Mos­ley’s warmth and appeal were clearly able to relax his sub­jects so that they were all but unaware of the capturing lens.

Being without an automo­bile was, in some respects for an urban photographer like Mosley, an advantage. Appar­ently he spent many hours every week walking to assign­ments, to camera shops where he bought supplies and back and forth to his office at the Y. Many of his photographs reveal that Mosley took advan­tage of the passing scene, depicting people on the street, children at play on the pave­ment or in school play­grounds, and small groups chatting on porches and stoops. Although Mosley’s photographs of buildings, of cars, of machinery, and even of laboratory animals exist, his real subject was people. Unlike photographers whose work is enhanced by the surprise and occasional dismay of the sub­jects, Mosley’s sitters convey a trust of the man behind the lens and enjoy – like performers – their moment in the spotlight. Mosley seems to have consistently resisted shooting the demeaning pho­tograph. At a Lincoln Univer­sity graduation the well known recipient of an honorary de­gree suffered a heart attack and a Philadelphia newspaper editor waiting for Mosley to return with photographs ex­pected some dramatic, sensa­tional photographs of the crisis. Mosley, however, not only had no shots of the emer­gency, he did not know it had occurred. But he was not un­observant. A contemporary of Mosley’s, retired from a career in the media, claims that he would have been an excellent journalist; he was well in­formed about international affairs, politics, history and many other fields. And, in­deed, balance and understand­ing typify the Mosley photograph.

Many of Mosley’s subjects remember his keen sense of humor, an aid to putting those before his lens at ease. Among the plentiful photographs of children are many laughing faces, presumably in response to a Mosley joke. Quite a few of the adults who stood before his lens have mentioned his droll wit. In the words of one former client, “You couldn’t always be sure of John’s inten­tion, he didn’t give himself away.”

Not a great deal is known about Mosley’s work in the early 1930s. Before that he was enrolled in the Berry O’Kelly Training School near Raleigh, North Carolina, where a class­mate recalled John in 1927 photographing the football team on which Mosley’s brother Ed was a star tackle, and, in the classmate’s words, “as boys will do, taking pic­tures of all the girls he could find.” Making his way north in the early years of the Great Depression, Mosley appears to have served a kind of appren­ticeship with a Market Street, Philadelphia, photographic firm, Barksdale Studios, al­though by 1935-1936 he seems to have been on his own.

Unlike some of the major black photographers, such as the recently discovered South Carolinian Richard Samuel Roberts (1880-1936) who worked for the post office and photographed in his spare time, John W. Mosley was a full-time photographer who made a decent living. While no diaries or account records from Mosley remain, occasional letters from clients, receipts, and notations on envelopes of prints indicate that the early 1960s groups paid sixteen dollars for six eight-by-ten inch prints of their event or gathering. In 1944, when Mos­ley took a group photograph of seventy-two young ladies of the Junior League and their chaperones, a six-by-fourteen inch print cost one dollar. In addition, the newspapers to which Mosley submitted his work paid him anywhere between fifteen and forty dollars per week, depending on submissions. One of Mos­ley’s drivers remembers the photographer joking about delivering wedding photo­graphs quickly so that he was paid before the couple had second thoughts or their mar­riage ran aground.

While the everyday require­ments of earning a living prob­ably prevented Mosley from seeing his work as high art, especially in an era before photography was readily granted such status, Mosley’s eye for composition and his sense of the humanly interest­ing contributed to his achiev­ing many insightful and artful shots. Considering that he often had to arrange his sub­jects in a small living room or dining room, in a school audi­torium or classroom, or in a dimly lit church basement, the quality of his best work is all but astonishing. Of particular note – in addition to his ability to put his subjects at ease­ – was Mosley’s intuitive sense of camera angle. The shot of the Cheney University homecom­ing queen and her attendants in a convertible was made from above and so dissolves the horizon and makes the happy and hopeful faces pri­mary. A halftime photo of 76’ers star Wilt Chamberlain on the night he scored his twenty-five thousandth point, also taken from above, shrinks the giant basketball player to average size, while out of a crowd of surrounding admir­ers, a Black youth touches his hand to Chamberlain’s shoul­der. Mosley was inventive, too, in finding ways to avoid the stereotypic pose in which viewers expect to see the prize fighter, the jazz musician or the campaigning politician. Jazz musicians, for instance, were sometimes shot from a “bird’s-eye view,” which shows the soloist-subject with his back partially toward the lens, an audience in front, and a fellow musician or an instru­ment intentionally blurred in the foreground.

Mosley’s portrait of four women in dresses enjoying themselves at “Chicken Bone Beach,” the Black section of Atlantic City, is nothing less then masterful. One woman, hands on hips, looks with motherly concern toward the group of children playing at the shoreline. The others, skirts hiked-up so that they look like exotic pantaloons from another part of the world, chat together. A woman in a checked dress clutches a black purse and stands in perfect profile, laughing. The graying-off of the photograph beyond the women to the pier and its windowed structure defines the horizon, frames the loca­tion, and allows the viewer to feel the dampness peculiar to seaside resorts. Other details catch the eye as well: the fa­ther with toddler in arms, the fishermen at the end of the pier. So many beach activities were depicted, all claiming the attention of some twenty-five or so people in a wide span of age groups. Toddlers, chil­dren, parents and elders share a place, a moment, a life’s pleasure together. The crowded activity captured by Mosley contrasts with the open ocean suggested by the empty margin on the right, while the softly billowing skirts and curving bodies of the women in the foreground contrast with the sharp archi­tectural horizontals and verti­cals of the background pier.

Contributing to the impres­siveness of Mosley’s achieve­ment is the fact that he did not shoot scores of pictures to produce a few useable images – many shooting ses­sions totaled only eight or twelve negatives – nor did he have the advantages of a so­phisticated darkroom; his equipment was relatively sim­ple and for most of his career he mixed his own chemicals. His widow, Teresa Still Mosley, a retired Philadelphia school­teacher, remembered that “the water was always running” at their apartment on West Fifty­-Second Street, where Mosley lived and worked thirty years ago.

John W. Mosley was not a photographer much interested in the rougher sides of street life, accidents, courtroom and crime scenes, or in human nature in its most unfortunate and sometimes least admirable moments. As a relative aptly expressed it, “his eye was on the positive.” The overall inten­tion of his work was to show people in moments of unity and fellowship, radiating a pride in the activity, family or group of which they were a part. The figures in his por­traits don’t scowl; instead, they project a quiet strength and dignity that more often than not is communicated to the viewer. The fact that his work survives is a tribute to a family which recognized the historic and creative value of this vast, one man archive. Moreover, the archive itself is a monument to this quiet, unas­suming, talented and hard­working photographer who lately walked uncelebrated among fellow Philadelphians.

 

For Further Reading

DeCarava, Roy and Langston Hughes. The Sweet Flypaper of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Hinton, Milt and David Berger. The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Johnson, Thomas and Phillip, eds. A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Ro­berts, 1920-1936. Columbia, S. C.: Bruccoli, Clark and Algon­quin Books, 1986.

McGhee, Reginald. The World of James Van Der Zee: A Visual Record of the Black Race. New York: Grove Press, 1969.

Sontag, Susan. On Photogra­phy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene: a Social History, 1839-1889. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942.

 

Richard D. Beards, Kirkwood, is associate professor of English and director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Temple Univer­sity. His doctorate of English literature was awarded by the University of Washington, Seat­tle. He has twice been a Fulbright­-Hays Professor of American Literature and Culture: in 1966-1967 at the University of Lund, Sweden, and in 1971-1972 at the University of Odense, Denmark. Since 1986, the author has been organizing the John W. Mosley photograph collection of Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. He has also assisted in three exhibitions of Mosley’s work in Philadelphia.