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What Happens to a Dream Developed? The Photographs of Al Smith

MOHAI’s interactive ‘On the Spot’ exhibit entertains and educates


Published on: December 04, 2017

Jitterbug Couple 1944 Al Smith
Jitterbug Couple, 1944. Photo credit: Al Smith

If you’ve ever wanted to teach your kids the importance of doing what you love and loving what you do, don’t miss "Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith," a new exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry. The exhibit showcases the work of African-American photographer and Seattle native Al Smith (1916–2008).

A self-described hobbyist turned career photographer, the breadth and beauty of Smith’s work is a remarkable reminder of what one can accomplish with a lifetime labor of love. However, what makes Smith’s work uniquely valuable is that it is more than just an encouraging example for creative-types; it is also an important history lesson.

smith selfie
Photo Credit: Estate of Al Smith Sr.

Interspersed among Smith’s works are installations detailing his process: a replica of his basement darkroom; a display that houses the magazine tutorials he read; an image of him as the only black member of an all-Japanese photography club.

In that spirit, the exhibit is fairly interactive, and therefore appealing to families. One corner offers instructions on how Smith would have prepared images in a dark room and invites kids to practice the process themselves. The center of the exhibit features life-sized images captured by Smith of the local jazz scene along with a slide-show, music, and bistro tables visitors can sit on, set up to resemble the jazz venues Smith frequented. In the center of the exhibit, there’s a large rotary telephone where guests can listen to community interviews and stories about Smith and his work.

This collection is a long overdue tribute to the history of the black community of 1940’s Seattle — and to the man who captured it.

As visitors interact with these displays, they are afforded a rare glimpse into the life of Al Smith and an often ignored part of Seattle’s history. Smith was a Seattle local who described himself as a "native son" of the Pacific Northwest, and the exhibit masterfully weaves stories from his personal life into the broader narrative of African-American life at the time. The exhibit uses an insider’s perspective to celebrate the rich community and culture of Seattle’s Central District in the 1940s: images of kids at play, family life and community events such as weddings and funerals are juxtaposed with action shots of music legends: Louie Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and more.

These vibrant snapshots of black life in Seattle are particularly poignant within their historical context. Because of the segregated spaces many black artists were forced to occupy, work by and for black people was and is largely ignored, which means that bodies of work capturing the black experience and history of Seattle are tragically rare. This collection is a long overdue tribute to the history of the black community of 1940s Seattle and to the man who captured it. Don’t miss your opportunity to take your family to see it.

ferris wheel
Photo Credit: Al Smith

If you go…

When: The exhibit is on view through June 17, 2018, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily.

Where: The Museum of History and Industry is located at 860 Terry Ave. in Seattle.

Cost: Admission to "On the Spot" is included with regular admission to MOHAI: $19.95 for adults, $15.95 for seniors (62 and above); $13.95 for students and military (with ID); free for children ages 14 and under (when accompanied by an adult) and MOHAI members.

On First Thursdays the exhibit is available at the special rate of $8 for adults, $6 for students, seniors and military.

Low-income families can visit MOHAI for $2 per person with the presentation of an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. For more information, call 206-324-1126.  

Getting there: Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood is well served by transit. Street parking and city lots are available and accessible surrounding MOHAI.

Additional Exhibit Events:

Tuesday, Dec. 5; 7 p.m.: Telling the Story of Al Smith: An Evening with the Curators, $10

Vivian Phillips, Seattle Arts Commission chair, hosts a conversation with curators Howard Giske, Al “Butch” Smith, Jr., Paul de Barros, and Quin’Nita Cobbins. Gain insights into the life and legacy of Al Smith and the development of MOHAI’s new exhibit, "Seattle on the Spot: The Photographs of Al Smith."

Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018; 10 a.m.–5 p.m.: Seattle on the Spot Family and Community Day features free music, performances, craft activities and more. Check online calendar for more information closer to event date.

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