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"The Photographs of Al Smith" exhibit shines a light on hidden history
Couple getting married in 1952. MOHAI. Al Smith Collection.

SEATTLE, WA.- This fall, explore Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith, on view at the Museum of History & Industry November 18, 2017 through June 17, 2018. An in-depth exhibit of legendary Seattle photographer Al Smith, this special show illustrates how Smith used photography to document the African-American community in the Pacific Northwest during the mid-20th century.

A retrospective of Smith’s work, Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith honors the collection of more than 40,000 photographs generously donated to MOHAI by the Smith family. This irreplaceable work serves as a unique example of capturing history through the lens, film and flashbulb.

Curated by Howard Giske, MOHAI’s Curator of Photography and a long-time friend of Al Smith, this important exhibit uncovers a collection as unique as the man who created it. “Al was as comfortable in church on Sunday morning as he was in a nightclub on Saturday night,” said Giske. This inclusive attitude inspired Smith to create lively documentary photographs of diverse subjects.

For more than half a century, Smith documented African-American community life in his hometown of Seattle. During that time, he amassed thousands of prints and negatives (taken between 1930 and 2005), which he stashed in drawers and cabinets and grocery bags in his home.

“I remember helping him develop pictures in his darkroom,” said Al “Butch” Smith Jr., Al Smith’s son and collaborator on the exhibit. “My job was to move new prints from tray to tray on a precise schedule. It was quality time, even without conversation. The camera was like a universal key that opened doors and gave my father license to go anywhere. He prided himself in knowing Seattle’s streets and what was happening around town and in the black community. He seemed to know everyone.”

Born in 1916, Al Smith received his first camera as a gift as a teenager. He fell in love with photography as he began to capture images of the Central District community where he was raised. After working as a steward on steamships, and sailing to Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Philippines, he returned to Seattle with a professional camera and began to explore his own city with the curiosity that had carried him around the Pacific. He brought his camera wherever he went, capturing friends and family, meeting and gatherings, and the vibrant social life, focusing on the Central District in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

“Al Smith’s photos capture the transformation of this changing and vibrant African American community between 1940 and the 1970s,” said Quin’Nita Cobbins, historian, webmaster and collaborator on the Seattle on the Spot exhibit. “The steady rise in postwar migration fueled local civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and dramatically altered African American experiences in the Pacific Northwest.”

Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith is accompanied by an illustrated book with contributions by Jacqueline E. A. Lawson, Howard Giske, Al “Butch” Smith Jr., Paul de Barros and Quin’Nita Cobbins. The book is distributed by the Museum of History & Industry and the University of Washington Press.

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