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'Life in Between' captures an era

by Jerry Cullum
For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Ellie Lee Weems: Birth, Death and Life in Between"

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Through Aug. 3. Price range $250-$450. Barbara Archer Gallery, 1123 Zonolite Road. 404-815-1545, 1-888-217-6285.

The verdict: Aesthetically and historically important images of African-American life.

Most people never get their pictures in the newspaper. Thus, for many decades, the commercial photographer was the primary recorder of life's significant moments. Professional photographers documented events that today are left to the amateur's camcorder.

This is how Ellie Lee Weems came to photograph not just graduations and weddings but golf trophies and stage performances in the African-American community of Jacksonville from the 1930s through the 1970s. Most of his archives now belong to the Auburn Avenue Research Library of African-American Culture and History, a branch of the Atlanta-Fulton County public library system. However, about 700 negatives ended up in a private collection.

Atlanta photographer Linda C. Alexander has made contact prints of about 50 of these, dating from 1939 to 1949. They allow a unique glimpse into the lives of middle-class African-Americans of that decade.
Selenium toned and artfully matted, these photographs show the edges of the negative, which Weems would never have allowed, but the device helps show that they are genuine works of art.

And that's what they are -- not just historical documents. These are people dressed for their highest moments, and Weems gave them the dignity they deserved. Singers pose before the WPDQ radio microphone. A boxer stands in trunks and gloves. Smiling couples, children in Scout uniforms and young women in formal gowns look their best for their hour of glory. A few moments of accidental surrealism occur amid these dozens of emotionally stirring images; in one memorable portrait, two women stand on either side of an enraged cat forcibly posed on a pedestal.

Without Weems, we wouldn't have known about these people, not even the award-winning golfers or the fez-bedecked officer of a fraternal order. And it is important to get this glimpse of African-American life of half a century ago, including businesses that also represent individual accomplishments. The couple posing in front of the bright, up-to-date art deco bar appear to be the proprietors.

It would be even better to know who these people were, or are. The negatives are labeled with names, probably of the person who paid for the photograph, not necessarily the sitter. So the Cub Scout photographed in 1942 and labeled "O.C. Fletcher" is probably an unidentified son. (The Scout would be around 70 today.) Some of the other names on the negatives -- Paulie Brown, Aldora Anderson, Carrie Roslin, Lucille Middleton, Margaret Benton -- almost certainly have children, grandchildren or other relatives who could tell their stories. The gallery encourages them to get in touch and help reconstruct some African-American family history.

Ellie Lee Weems' images encompass the occasional surreal moment, as in this print of two women with a not-very-amused cat.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2002, Page Q7