Snapshots in Time

Acclaimed photographer returns to Memphis roots with Stax exhibit

By Andy Meek

A WORLD IN TRANSITION: In his photo exhibit, "Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience," photographer and former Memphian Jason Miccolo Johnson depicts various aspects of hundreds of churches across the United States. -- Photos Courtesy Of The Stax Museum Of American Soul Music

Over the course of former Memphian Jason Miccolo Johnson's award-winning photographic career, he's captured icons such as Princess Diana and five of the last six U.S. presidents.

He scored a rare session to photograph the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and another photo assignment carried him to Selma, Ala., where he walked across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. That's where armed police officers attacked civil rights demonstrators in 1965, an event remembered as "Bloody Sunday."

Johnson's photos have appeared in Smithsonian Institution exhibits and he's worked at USA Today and ABC's "Good Morning America." Through April 29, his photography is part of an exhibit at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.

Memphis homecoming

Such dizzying professional heights, arguably the pinnacle of his profession, were born in an unlikely place: For Johnson, the dreams and the destiny were forged in his South Memphis high school.

Relying on an old Polaroid camera, Johnson offered snapshots of his fellow students at George Washington Carver High School for a dollar each. Some of those same classmates of his went on to pursue recording careers - a few of them at Stax, where Johnson's exhibit documenting the black church experience currently is on display.

More coincidentally still, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Stax, as well as the 50th of Johnson's old Memphis high school.

"I really began my photography business at Carver in the 11th grade taking pictures of my classmates - that's how I bought my school clothes and kept money in my pocket," Johnson said.

The man who eventually would travel the country - snapping photos of civil rights landmarks, documenting the hardscrabble existence he found in urban areas and photographing men of power and influence - bought his first camera at a Beale Street pawn shop. The money he used had been saved from chopping cotton.

Unforgettable

Besides skill with a lens, Johnson also learned to grasp various business concepts early on at Carver.

"I charged a dollar a photo with the Polaroid, as well as the 35 mm I used later," he reminisced by phone from his current studio in Washington. "On the 35 mm, you had 36 pictures on a roll, versus eight in the Polaroid. So if you blew a shot in the Polaroid, that's an eighth of your earnings gone.

"That was also when I had my first great marketing challenge. I had to convince my classmates to go from instant gratification to waiting three days till I could get the film back from the drug store."

To entice them, Johnson let them pay 50 cents up front, and the rest upon delivery of the photo. Eventually, he became his school's unofficial photographer. Whenever a guest would visit, the school principal often called him to snap a picture.

"I really began my photography business at Carver in the 11th grade taking pictures of my classmates - that's how I bought my school clothes and kept money in my pocket."
- Jason Miccolo Johnson
Award-winning photographer

At one point at Carver, Johnson was voted "Most Likely Not to be Forgotten." Today, though, he spends his life ensuring that - through his camera - the subjects and people he's passionate about are not forgotten.

Yes, Lord!

One of the subjects closest to his heart, and one shaped most indelibly by his early years in Memphis, is black churches. Specifically, their iconic imagery - boisterous sermons and worship services, men lifting outstretched hands, ladies wearing fancy hats - and their place in society.

Seventy-five scenes from black churches across the country form Johnson's traveling exhibit on display at Stax, "Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience." The exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through April.

"We met Jason last spring in Boston," said Tim Sampson, communications manager for the Stax Museum. "We saw the exhibit, a version of it, and we were so impressed that we immediately decided we wanted to have it at Stax because of the gospel roots of soul music. And (Johnson's) photography was just so beautiful."

After high school, Johnson joined the military, served for a few years, then returned to Memphis.

After coming back, Johnson spent almost three years at Memphis State University, then transferred to Howard University in Washington. From then on, he devoted himself to photography. Johnson befriended titans of the field, people like Memphian Ernest Withers.

The only time he recalls ever being nervous was photographing Marshall in his office in the massive marble Supreme Court building.

In the forward to the companion book to "Soul Sanctuary," the late photographer Gordon Parks wrote: "Jason Johnson's efforts are thorough. His camera has taken intimate glimpses at just about everyone who worshipped in black churches wherever he found them."

'A 10-year odyssey'

Parks was a renowned writer and photographer known for his photo essays in Life magazine. He also directed the 1971 film "Shaft." In 2006, Johnson told an NPR interviewer that "The Learning Tree," a novel written by Parks, was one of the first he remembers reading at Carver High.

Johnson and Parks eventually became friends, and Johnson delivered a eulogy at Parks' funeral last year.

Johnson's Stax exhibit, meanwhile, is a tapestry of images woven from his youth, when - as a young boy - he spent countless Sunday mornings at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Downtown Memphis. While traversing the country a few years ago, Johnson searched for new versions of those old memories.

His camera captured thick family Bibles resting on laps, beams of light glittering through stained-glass windows, fans cooling weary brows in sanctuaries. Johnson visited more than 200 churches for the exhibit, which includes images from 10 Memphis churches.

"This exhibit," Johnson said, "was really a 10-year odyssey."