How a surprise discovery of 1960s photographs meets the present moment
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Shortly after the death of her mother in 2018, a massive relic of Jeffrey Henson Scales childhood was unexpectedly found in her family’s home. Her stepfather and older brother were preparing the house for a possible sale when they stumbled upon a treasure of 40 rolls of film.
“We think these are probably yours,” they told Mr. Scales, photographer and photo editor at The New York Times.
The scrolls included photographs Mr. Scales took as a teenager – images that captured major cultural, political and social moments of the 1960s. There were photos of student protests in Berkeley, Calif., Photos of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and Family Stone at the famous Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and about 15 rolls from the Black Panther Party.
Mr Scales was both delighted and relieved that the photos had not been lost over time.
Now they are part of an exhibition that opens September 16 at Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem. The exhibition “At the time of the panthers: the lost negatives,” presents a series of photographs captured by young Mr. Scales while immersed in the Black Panther movement in Northern California. The images capture movement – and its lasting reverberations and impact on today’s Black Lives Matter movement – and also mark a pivotal time in Mr. Scales’ life, when he realized his own power in as an artist and a young activist.
I spoke with Mr. Scales about his time with the Black Panther movement, how his photographs from that period remain relevant today, and what he hopes for those who see his images. Our conversation has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How were you immersed in the Black Panther movement in Northern California?
My father was a bit of an activist. We moved from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco in 1964 to Berkeley, to that house that had a ballroom, and we had big parties. When Stokely Carmichael handed over the leadership of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee to H. Rap Brown, they hosted the celebration and ceremony in our home. My mother would take me to the picket lines in San Francisco when I was a young child, when they were protesting against separate hotels. So we were activists.
It was 1967 and I was 13 and I had a lot of friends who still lived in Haight-Ashbury, and it was going to be the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. My parents said, “Well, maybe we’ll send him to his parents in the Midwest. And so I went to Minneapolis to stay with my dad’s sister. And then my grandmother was going to take me to the different parents in places like Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, and that turned out to be the “long hot summer of 1967”.
There were riots in a few of these places in the urban centers and I really hadn’t seen anything like it. And I think I probably got a little radicalized to some extent and moved by that. And then the Panthers started picking up in the Bay Area. So I started taking pictures of them and hanging out. They gave me really amazing access. And I’m not sure why, but they did.
What was it like to be surrounded by all these moments at such a young age and to capture them?
Photography was like a hobby and it was fun to do. My dad was an amateur photographer and we had a darkroom at home. But in Oakland and Berkeley, the Panthers were the coolest people in the movement. The whole presentation with leather jackets, berets. They were very cool. You had the hippies in San Francisco, then you had the Black Panthers in Oakland, and it was very powerful and that was sometime in 1968, with the Vietnam War.
The movement gave the impression that we could change society. We could have an effect. It was a very exciting place. It was dangerous because of the police violence against the Panthers. I remember being in the office where they piled sandbags under the windows because you never knew when the police were just going to start firing on the desk because they had done it in the room. ‘one of the Oakland offices.
As a teenager it’s very exciting because you’re not as concerned about safety as you are as you get older. And I believed in trying to stop police violence against blacks in the community and other fundamental issues of the civil rights movement. They’ve gone from two or three offices in the Bay Area to 60 across the country. There was a wave of attraction for this organization.
Take us through some of the images that are part of the exhibition.
This image was the day Huey Newton got out of prison. They called me and said, “Oh, he was going out, we’re going to have a press conference. And so I went there when he was talking to the press. We knew each other because I was visiting him in Oakland Prison during the trial, so it was a picture where he looked me straight in the eye, which is why I love this picture.
I spent a lot of time photographing Bobby Seale. I remember considering one of my first successful photographs that I really captured the way I wanted. When I was about 11, my father gave me a Leica camera. It was like my independent study of photography. I remember thinking the composition was really perfect.
I love this image of them all lined up and holding the famous Huey Newton poster by photographer Blair Stapp. I like the guy with the ice cream cone. It’s across from the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Apparently my dad worked on this poster with Blair and Eldridge Cleaver. He told me in the 90s.
Can you tell us a bit about the parallels between these images and the moment we are living in right now?
You see the repeated cases of police murdering black people, and with the internet, cellphones, and the media, we visually see how brutality is happening. And then seeing the Black Lives Matter movement pick up again, he had a certain familiarity. It brings back a lot of memories to me from that time and personal frustration that we are still discussing this. There is a little sadness in there. But at the same time, seeing a much larger movement is also inspiring.
Who do you hope the show reaches?
I like that the gallery is in Harlem. I hope it will reach young people who are not familiar with this particular aspect of black civil rights history. Hope this makes people wonder what the Black Panther Party was all about. The original Black Panthers were really about building an ally with all races and all kinds of people. They were focused on the black community, but they were not a nationalist organization. This was one of the conflicts that came up with some of the other groups at the time.
They had an ideology and a platform for specific things they wanted to do, and community service was a great thing they were doing, serving the community and making the community better.
What did you learn from being around the Black Panther Party?
As a young activist, I have learned how important it is to have a concrete mission to help improve the community you speak for. It’s not just slogans and protests. It’s also about improving communities and serving the underserved people in those communities, and how important that is. I just recently thought about what I learned and instead it all takes 50 years later.
Pierre-Antoine Louis is press assistant at the national office and reporter for Race / Related. Much of his work focuses on race, identity and culture.