Jim Alexander in his studio at The Arts Exchange, Atlanta, GA
Photo Courtesy of Calvin Evans
Jim Alexander entered the world on August 7, 1935 in Waldwick, NJ as one of 13 children born to David and Frances James Alexander. Growing up in an era where opportunities for economic advancement were few and far between for African Americans, Alexander enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1952. During his time in Naval boot camp in Bainbridge, MD, one seemingly minor event would help shape the course of his entire life; Alexander won his first camera in a friendly dice game. Immediately putting his new camera to use, Alexander would sell photographs to the other sailors for fifty cents each.
Once he finished boot camp he was transferred to a naval base in Charleston, S.C. to start training as a diesel engineman. While in Charleston he asked the naval base photographer to look over some of his work, impressed by Alexander’s natural eye he began teaching him about 35mm and large format photography.
After serving four years in the U.S. Navy Alexander returned to New Jersey putting photography on the back burner for several years before deciding to enroll in New York Institute of Photography (NYIP). Alexander earned a degree in commercial photography from NYIP and he went on to earn a certificate in business organization and management from Rutgers University.
On a bus ride from Ridgewood, N.J. to New York he met Eric Maristany. Both men traveling with cameras in tow they naturally struck up a conversation. Maristany worked for a filmstrip producer in Ridgewood and invited Alexander to visit the studio. A few days later he paid the studio a visit where he met the staff and owner who were producing educational filmstrips on the civil rights movement. Alexander would spend many days in the studio as a volunteer.
With his degree and artistic acumen he soon acquired a very distinctive list of clients like Ford Motor Company, City of Paterson, NJ, the New Haven, CT Housing Authority, Johnson Publishing Company, and others. During this time he also began what would eventually add up to over 40 years of teaching photography.
1968 was one of the most significant years for Jim Alexander; it marked a turning point, giving him a higher understanding of the importance of his photography. In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR’s assassination in 1968, Alexander began a body of work entitled, Spirits/Martyrs/Heroes. This vast collection spans from the 1960s up to the present and encompasses a wide range of subjects from the human rights and civil rights movements, music, art, politics and everyday people who were unwavering in their pursuit of justice.
Jim Alexander with Gordon Parks
Clark College, Atlanta, GA 1988
The friendship and mentorship of photographer Gordon Parks was instrumental in helping send Alexander’s photographic career in a direction much different than that of commercial photography. A photo can be taken to build or it can be taken to destroy and that decision rests within the hands of the photographer. Alexander understood the effects his photography could have on the psyches of the viewer and the subject.
Moved to dedicate ten years of his life and work to documenting human rights and the Black experience; he shared this intention with Parks. Parks said, “that sounds good James, but your ass is going to starve, nobody is going to pay you to just run around shooting anything that interests you.” Alexander explained that teaching photography would allow him to do his documentary work. Fifty years have gone by since that conversation and he continues to document Black life and the human rights struggle.
Alexander’s reverence for the message that each photo contains burrows that message deep into the viewer’s conscious. His photos embody the very honest aesthetic of a participant observer. As described by Jim Alexander, a participant observer acknowledges the undeniable influence of his mere presence, while pleading allegiance to the role of the spectator. Alexander’s images help call attention to gross violations of human rights in the United States over the course of many decades.
The intentions of his photography are apparent in the way his subjects are photographed. This is especially important in reference to African Americans whom have experienced very distorted representation in mainstream media.
Even before clearly defining his mission Alexander had already been actively documenting the Anti-War Movement in the mid 1960s. The Vietnam War was one of the longest and most openly protested wars in United States history. Alexander captured powerful images of peace rallies and protests in opposition to the war across northern states and the southeast.
Jim Alexander with Dollie McLean Yale University, New Haven, CT 1973
Photo Courtesy of Fact, Inc
In 1970 Alexander moved to New Haven, CT after being hired as a consultant and photography instructor for Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture’s Black Environmental Studies Team (B.E.S.T.) and The Black Workshop. While in New Haven, CT Alexander opened his photo studio, Jim-Alex Studio Gallery in 1971 where he exhibited the works of other photographers as well as his own. The studio became a meeting place and a hub for artists and activists of all kinds. Community meetings were frequently held there and The Connecticut Black Media Coalition was established at his studio. Alexander jokes, “Everything happened in my studio but photography”. As a strong believer in “art for people’s sake”, he established an organization called, Freedom Arts Communications Team (F.A.C.T.) in 1972. F.A.C.T. was a collective of artists; musicians, visual artists, poets, media professionals, community advocates, theater group members and mentors. By launching a community arts festival, working with schools, the Police Athletic League and community development offices, they created a visiting artist program to serve youth and adults in the New Haven, CT area.
Jim Alexander’s activism is visible not only in the images captured by his lens but is also displayed through his actions. He is unafraid to teach, to organize, to love and to mentor within the African American community. His photography is a testament to his character. In the mid 90s Alexander worked as a coordinator and instructor of photography for As Seen By Teens a summer photography program sponsored by Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta that taught young people the skills of photojournalism.
Continuing the pursuit of understanding the problems that plagued society, Alexander attended the New School for Social Research in New York and completed his coursework in communications psychology and cause advertising in 1974.
Atlanta became home to Jim Alexander and his family in 1976 after he accepted a position as the director of audiovisual communications for the Atlanta Office of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. This was a non-profit established to save, protect and expand the landholdings of Black family farmers in the south.
Jim Alexander in his studio at The Neighborhood Arts Center
Atlanta, GA 1978
Self-Portrait by Jim Alexander
The Black Arts Movement marked an era when African Americans unabashedly declared their art, their culture and themselves beautiful. This movement began in Harlem around 1965 with the establishment of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The Black Arts Movement sought to empower the African American community by instilling pride and self-love through artistic expression. Photographs often hold truths that words are not able to convey. Furthermore, words can be denied based on the biases of those that refuse to acknowledge them. The importance of having a visual truth that cannot be changed or erased is a priceless treasure.
Established in 1975 The Neighborhood Arts Center (the NAC) became Atlanta’s epicenter for the Black Arts Movement. The NAC was created from the vision of Atlanta’s first African American Mayor, Maynard Jackson. As photographer-in-residence at The NAC, Jim Alexander was very diligent in preserving all the rich history The NAC created. One of many historic moments documented by Alexander at The NAC was a visit from legendary artist and author, Romare Bearden.
Jim Alexander went on to serve as Photographer-in-Residence at Clark College from 1984 -1990. The Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church founded Clark College in 1869. Clark College was established as an institution of higher education, which offered African Americans an opportunity that was scarce. Clark College would later consolidate with Atlanta University in 1988 to
become Clark Atlanta University. While at Clark, Jim implemented a mentoring program where he worked with students who did yearbook, campus newspaper and other types of photography. He also documented consolidation meetings and events right up to the historical ribbon cutting for the AU/CC CAU merger.
Music was a vital part of African survival in the evil realities created by slavery and it continues to be an integral part of African American culture. Music was communication, it was spiritual connection, and it was hope. Spirituals helped uplift the minds and souls of our ancestors that suffered unimaginable savagery at the hands of slaveholders. Our music is spiritual and is essential to life. The blues offers a brief easement to the harsh realities of life through song.
As Alexander was documenting a number of events he noticed that all of the events he documented opened with music. He became more and more aware of just how critical music was to African American life and he began to understand the importance of the musician. It was at this point that he decided black music would be one of the focuses of his photographic work. Alexander produced his Blues Legacy exhibit for the inaugural National Blacks Arts Festival in 1988.
In 1988, Jim Alexander produced Duke and Other Legends: Jazz Photographs By Jim Alexander. Duke and Other Legends, was an exhibit and monograph of 50 classic jazz musicians that toured 13 southern cities through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation. The resilience and creativity of African American culture captivates the world whether it is through music, art or the written word. Jazz music is just one example of the beauty birthed by African Americans in spite of the hatred and marginalization that was designed to break their spirits. Jim Alexander is able to accentuate that juxtaposition by capturing images of the ugly barriers created by hatred as well as the elegant strength of those who dare to shatter them. Alexander has spent years documenting some of Jazz’s most masterful musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and many others.
Alexander’s love for reading and education led him to co-found First World Bookstore in Atlanta in 1988. First World Bookstores, which specialized in African American books, art and gifts grew to a five-bookstore chain in a short period of time and remained open until 1994.
Jim Alexander’s photography possesses a social, historical and emotional relevance that continues to solidify its inclusion in exhibitions throughout the country. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service selected several of Alexander’s photos for their Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington, which toured from 1993-1996. In 1995 Atlanta’s City Gallery East established the Atlanta Masters Series and Jim Alexander was selected as their first artist, “Chosen for his major contributions to Atlanta and the world.” They mounted a retrospective exhibition of over 200 photographs entitled, Jim Alexander: Telling Our Story, which was on display for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. On October 18, 2000, he was awarded a Photojournalist of a Lifetime, award for his documentary work by JOCADA. The impact of his work and his life can be seen not just in his photographs but in the lives of all the people he touches on a daily basis.
The Jim Alexander Collection is a photographic progression through African American music, social struggle, artistic expression and the love one man has for his people and his love for social justice. The Jim Alexander Collection is proud to present his work, a beautiful ode to the on-going story of Africa’s decedents in America and abroad.
Jim Alexander: Participant Observer
Renay Rajua Nailon