(NEXSTAR) – Some people consider Ebony and Jet magazines the social media for Black people in the 20th century. The magazines kept communities of color informed, and much it was done through pictures.
Now those photographs are getting a second life thanks to a multi-million-dollar purchase that will let the Images live on forever.
Through a camera lens, 85-year-old Roy Lewis produces images, telling a story with a moment captured in time.
“An artist has time to create a sculpture, a painting. But a photographer, we only have seconds. It’s a second,” Lewis said. “I tell people I write with pictures.”
In 1956, Lewis began working at Johnson Publishing Company, JPC, in Chicago. The publisher produced Negro Digest, Jet and Ebony magazines in the mid-1940s, the pioneers in storytelling for black households around the country.
“It represented the mountain, the top of the mountain for black journalists,” Lewis explained.
Within the pages of those magazines, photographers like Lewis made history. Now their camera film rolls live on after the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute acquired the historic JPC archive.
The collection includes photos, negatives and contact sheets spanning more than seven decades.
“Perhaps my favorite image is this image of Marvin Gaye,” curator Eric Williams said. “Many know his father was a minister.”
Part of the $30 million collection can be seen there in the museum’s Spirit in the Dark exhibition. Black life is seen through historical figures in entertainment, religion and politics. Each camera flash reveals music, activism and pop culture, all connected by common themes.
“They were wrestling with the issues of their own times, and the role of religion was prominent in their stories,” Williams said.
Also in the exhibit are treasures like the typewriter used to transcribe notes for Malcolm X and Little Richard’s coveted bible.
“We see in his highlighting the struggle he had with the religious community around his sexuality,” Williams noted of the piece.
The images shared in the exhibit are only a glimpse of rolls of film containing more than 4 million visuals soon to be made available to the public.
Smithsonian curator Aaron Bryant said that while the collection features a number of photos of famous and widely known individuals in Black history many of the images will really focus on just regular people.
“That’s true across the board,” Bryant explained. “I think it’s really important for people, particularly young people to be able to see themselves somehow. Not just reflected in the photographs but see themselves reflected in the history that the photographs documents.”
The magazines also hold a special place in the hearts of many, providing a generational connection within families.
“I can remember going to the beauty salon with my mother, and the first thing I wanted to get were the Ebony and Jet magazines because they portrayed the black community in very wonderful ways,” Williams recalled.
That passion is now able to be relived thanks to what was captured in the lens.
“You hold these images in your hand, and it’s like a found jewel,” Bryant said.
The bulk of the archives is currently in the process of being digitized in Chicago. The museum hasn’t released specific plans on how they will be presented to the public.
For Lewis, the exhibit is a reminder of his part in sharing history. It was a very big deal to have several pages of photos in Ebony magazine, “It is a real big deal,” he stressed, and as the millions of photos come back into frame, Lewis’ work will likely be among them.
Though he stopped working for JPC in 1968, Lewis continued his work in photography and film. His heart never left the magazine company that captivated millions of people, though, and now possibly millions more through the power of an image.