FOCAL POINT: Al Smith photographed singer Vivian Dandridge (above), older sister of Dorothy Dandridge, at Seattle's China Pheasant restaurant in 1953.
Albert Joseph Septimus “Al” Smith grew up above a grocery store in Seattle, the son of a couple from the West Indies who settled in Seattle’s Central District in 1914. He embraced photography early on — he owned a Kodak Brownie camera by the time he was 12 in 1928 — but it was mostly a sideline until he got more serious about it during the Depression.
By the 1940s, Smith had started a side business called Al Smith: On the Spot. He would shoot photos of entertainers and patrons at the jazz clubs and concert venues that lined Jackson Street in Seattle and then sell prints — for 50 cents each — a few days later.
He probably didn’t consider it at the time, but Smith’s body of work, which spanned more than six decades, would provide an astonishingly intimate chronicle of the African-American experience during the latter half of the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest. Smith died in 2008. Beginning this month, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) presents On the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith to give visitors a glimpse into Smith’s historically significant collection, which has been donated to MOHAI by Smith’s family.
Albert Joseph Septimus “Al” Smith. Photo courtesy MOHAI, Al Smith Collection
Curated by Howard Giske, MOHAI’s curator of photography and a longtime friend of Smith, the exhibit showcases a collection as distinctive as the man who created it. “It is one person’s work, but it says a lot about Seattle and its people,” notes Giske, who co-curated a similar MOHAI tribute to Smith in 1993-94. “Al was as comfortable in church on Sunday morning as he was in a nightclub on Saturday night.”
Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros, author of Jackson Street after Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, considers Smith’s work extraordinary. “When you look at Al’s photographs,” de Barros says, “you don’t feel like a visitor, but more like a participant, partaking in the joy revealed by his camera.”
ON THE SPOT: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF AL SMITH: November 18, 2017 – June 17, 2018. Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave. N, Seattle; 206.324.1126; mohai.org.