John W. Mosley, the self-taught cameraman who countered stereotypical images of blacks with captivating photos

Michael Eli Dokosi August 10, 2020
John W. Mosley, self-portrait, John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

John W. Mosley’s contribution to the advancement of African Americans is valuable. The self-taught photographer’s over 300,000 images capturing African-American life in and around Philadelphia are so important and have been preserved in the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries.

Blockson acquired the Mosley photos from Clarence Still and Teresa Still Mosley, John W. Mosley’s wife in 1985. It is one of the largest collections in the United States.

Mosley documented virtually every social, cultural, and political aspect of African-American life from the late 1930s to the late 1960s operating largely from Philadelphia and Atlantic City, but also New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.

Notables he captured with his camera included “Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and players of the Negro Baseball League.”

Others were “bandleader Duke Ellington, trumpeter Cootie Williams, basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, tennis player Ora Washington, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Cecil B. Moore, Eleanor Roosevelt, and President Richard Nixon.”

Born to a Baptist minister and barber in Lumberton, North Carolina in 1907, Mosley attended Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte.

His interest in photography began in the 1920s and by 1934; he had been hired by Barksdale Photography Studio having moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration. In the city, “he chronicled the vitality of the black community and life in the segregated city” capturing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

One of the premier photojournalists of the 20th-century began teaching himself photography with a simple box camera in the 1920s. He shot in black and white film and used a large-format Graflex Speed Graphic camera as well as a medium-format Rollieflex. He also had a photographic studio at the Christian Street YMCA.

Aside notables that Mosley photographed, he also portrayed the black community positively at family, social, and cultural events . “He photographed individuals and families at weddings, picnics, churches, segregated beaches, sporting events, concerts, galas, and civil rights protests. During a time of racism and segregation, he emphasized the achievements of black celebrities, athletes, and political leaders.”

Locations he captured included The Pyramid Club, Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City, Glamour Row, Club Harlem, Nixon’s Grand Theatre at Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue and the Earle Theatre at 1049 Market Street.

Mosley was one of the first black Americans to be a syndicated photographer. His work was widely published in newspapers and magazines such as The Philadelphia Tribune, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Pittsburgh Courier and the Jet magazine.

He was also the official photographer of the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Charles L. Blockson wrote a biography of Mosley’s life, The journey of John W. Mosley (1992).

A retrospective of Mosley’s work, A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley, appeared at the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia in 2016. He passed on October 1, 1969 aged 62 in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: August 10, 2020


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