Remembering Legendary Photographer Jack Franklin
Photographer Jack T. Franklin was born on May 7, 1922, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Frank and Florence Collier Franklin. Frank Franklin, originally from Georgia, was a school principal who often gave Jack and his two siblings music lessons on the piano. Franklin’s mother, Florence, was a normal school graduate and a prominent social figure in Philadelphia’s African American community. Following Frank Franklin’s death, she became a practical nurse and a hair dresser. In 1933, Franklin’s sister, Eloise, gave him a Brownie camera for his eleventh birthday. Franklin began taking photographs of everything and everyone he knew. His sister, an accomplished opera singer, remained one of his favorite subjects.
He captured the history of African Americans in black and white reality, joy, hardship, celebration and life. His legacy includes over 400,000 photographs that include such historic events as the March on Washington and the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.
Historic, iconic and famous people such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Josephine Baker, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr, James Baldwin, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Jame Brown and numerous others are included in his collection.
The following story first appeared August 2006 in The Philadelphia Tribune, a venerable African American newspaper he provided images to for decades before he became a topic of focus.
Jack T. Franklin died on September 25, 2009.
It was an honor to know him, and even more so to cover him.
Born in North Philadelphia in 1922, Jack Franklin began taking photographs at age 10 at his sister’s suggestion.
“In 1932, my sister (Eloise) went to the Chicago World’s Fair and brought me back a camera,” he said, “and I been stuck with a camera ever since.”
His sister was not pleased with Franklin’s first job.
“My sister never liked the idea of me being a junkman,” Franklin recalled. “But I was a good junkman. I was making money. And I learned through knowing how to pick out junk what was good and what was bad.
“I knew how to sort stuff in my head, so when I started shooting pictures I knew what was good and what was bad. So it segued from that to being a photographer.”
The half-million photos and negatives Franklin has donated to the African American Museum in Philadelphia document national celebrities as well as ordinary folks.
He photographed key moments during the Civil Rights movement, including the activities of Martin Luther King, Sidney Poitier, Julie and Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Andy Williams and the Rev. Leon Sullivan; the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 and the Girard College protests in Philadelphia that led to its desegregation.
He took photos for periodicals such as Sepia, Nite Life and The Philadelphia Tribune, where he documented the region’s Black social life and its lively music scene.
Franklin developed what he calls a “third eye,” and was lauded for his photographic work from the start of his career.
“The way I treat photography is different from how other people treat it,” he explained. “Most of the time people go and get up in their faces and take pictures of them. The idea is to photograph what they’re doing.
“The atmosphere of the surroundings is very important because that’s telling you what year, so when you see a picture you can say, ‘Oh that was taken in the ’30s.’ That’s the purpose of photography: the main reason is to identify.
“ And that’s why instead of being a writer I chose to be a photographer. ’Cause you can write anything you want, but sometimes we flavor things to set our feelings at that particular time. With the camera, you can make it lie, but you can tell the truth with it too.”
Today, Franklin is recognized as one of America’s greatest living photographers. He continues to be known for his vast body of work now housed at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
Currently the museum is presenting an exhibit of 14 young photographers entitled, “Shootout: Reverberating the Spirit and Legacy of Jack T. Franklin.” These photographers had eight weeks to follow in Franklin’s footsteps by capturing images from their communities.
“It is through his sprit and legacy that these young people shoot, and they document what’s going on, not just in the African American community as it relates to Philadelphia, but the African Diaspora community,” explains exhibit curator Shantrelle Lewis.
At the exhibit’s preview, the 84-year-old Franklin proved that he still had a sharp eye. As hr reviewed each of the images on the wall, he offered gentle advice and guidance to each of the young exhibitors.
One of the first images he praised belonged to first-time exhibitor (and Tribune staff photographer) Marissa Weekes.
“I think we can credit Jack with breaking down barriers,” said Weekes, 27. “Barriers is race and barriers is also gender and the fact the that 12 of the 14 photographers in this exhibit are female speaks to the struggle that Jack made so that we could be here.”
Freelance photographer Sarah Stefana Smith, 24, was drawn to photography by “a desire to articulate what I couldn’t say in words.”
Smith studied sociology at Spellman University and applies her study to her craft of photography.
“A lot of my interest lies in doing social documentation and that would be using photography as a means to document what’s going on,” she explained. “What people do, what we sort of take for granted and using that as a way to speak to different communities.”
Ayana Jackson, 29, was just back in the U.S. after spending three years traveling the globe documenting the stories of African descendents, especially those in South America.
“Since 2002, I’ve dedicated myself to looking at and discovering increasing visibility amongst Afro descedents in Latin America,” said Jackson, who usually pairs her exhibits with photography workshops. “I’m teaching photography to young Afro-descendent youths with the hopes of trying to get more photography coming from the first-person perspective as far as these communities are concerned.
“You have photographers, like myself, who are always going to be an outsider, so I want to get some of these young people to start documenting their own culture.”
Although the exhibit will not feature Franklin’s work, Lewis says the exhibit’s overall goal is to create intergenerational dialogue.
“Oftentimes we hear about the accomplishments of so many people from past generations, so the question then is, What is your generation doing?” said Lewis. “It’s just very exciting to see young people documenting what’s happening in 2006 in our communities so it can serve as a living legacy for that are to follow.”
When it comes to photography, Franklin may be sitting on the sidelines, but he’s not out of the game. During the course of his career he’s worked with various formats and is anxious to start shooting digital pictures.
“I got to learn how to do digital. I understand it. I just don’t do it yet.”
Jack T. Franklin collection of photography has been housed at the African American Museum of Philadelphia since 2006.