Jim Alexander has spent decades chronicling African American life

One of Jim Alexander’s favorite photos of Count Basie was not taken backstage or while he played in front of an audience.

It was taken in the men’s room at a Buckhead school in 1981.

Basie was performing at a fundraiser, and the two started chatting about New Jersey, where both were born.

Alexander, with Nikon in hand, asked to take a photo before Basie “got dressed up.”

The legendary jazz pianist smiled.

“Well, c’mon, ‘cause I gotta get out on stage.”

“Most of the time, I don’t ask,” said Alexander, 84. “If you see a shot, you take it. If you want to get permission every time you saw something, then the moment isn’t there any longer. I like to show people doing what they do. If it’s a musician, I want to capture them creating their art.”

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Alexander, an award-winning Atlanta photographer and activist who has spent more than five decades chronicling black life from the civil rights movement to music and current culture, recently published a book of his work, “SOS Signs of Struggle: Photographs by Jim Alexander,” and has an exhibit on display at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center on Forrest Street.

The exhibit, which includes about two dozen photographs, runs through March 31.

His lens has frozen in time people engaged in protest marches and rallies, and leaders such as former Mayor Maynard Jackson, artist Romare Bearden and a jubilant Johnnetta Cole surrounded by a cadre of famous black female writers at her inauguration as the seventh president of Spelman College.

Alexander, said Donna Clayton, the cultural arts center’s coordinator, is “an Atlanta treasure. Jim is a renowned member of Atlanta’s cultural community, recognized for his work at the Neighborhood Arts Center and mentoring young artists, and bringing attention to Atlanta as a hub of black art and culture through his touring exhibits. This exhibit pays homage to the many contributions black musicians have made to America’s cultural landscape, with a particular focus on jazz.”

The Atlanta-based photographer, who describes himself as a “participant observer,” has spent decades documenting America’s black community.

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“A lot of things I’ve done are for personal reasons,” he said. “I was very much involved in the nonviolence social action movement. I documented marches and rallies. I love music, so I spent 50-something years just documenting all black music — jazz, blues, gospel.”

Alexander works out of studio space in southeast Atlanta. Dozens of photos hang on his walls. And that’s just a small sample.

In all, his collection, stuffed in file cabinets scattered around the office, includes between 25,000 and 30,000 images.

It’s hard to name anyone he has not photographed.

Music, though, is his passion.

He started taking photos of musicians in 1965, and those include Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt and Bobby "Blue" Bland. He pulls out a photo taken in 1974 at the home of W.C. Handy. At the time, he wanted to document where the blues great had lived and places he had worked.

The son of an auto mechanic and domestic worker and cook, Alexander got into photography by happenstance.

He was in the U.S. Navy at the time. One day, he and some of the other guys were in the back of the barracks shooting dice.

One guy bet Alexander $10 that he couldn’t throw a “10.”

He did. The guy didn’t have the money and came out from the barracks with a yellow box with a camera in it. He gave it to Alexander as collateral until payday, when he promised to give him the $10.

When payday rolled around, he didn’t have it.

Alexander learned how to use the camera and used it to take pictures of the other guys, then sold the photos to them for 50 cents.

Soon he was hooked.

Alexander is a familiar fixture around Atlanta, always with his Nikon nearby and his signature beret (most often black) atop his whitish-gray hair.

He started wearing a beret in 1953 after the death of his mother. At the time, Alexander was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Charleston, South Carolina.

He was so used to wearing a hat in the military and felt odd without one on his head.

His younger sister took her babysitting money and bought him a beret.

Alexander’s worn one ever since.

Alexander worked as the manager of a newspaper delivery service, taught and did documentary work.

He had photos published in Ebony, Jet and other magazines.

It was hard for black photographers to get work published in mainstream magazines and newspapers.

“We were out there struggling,” he said.

Then the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

His focus changed.

He didn’t think he would have the freedom he wanted working full time for a newspaper or magazine.

“Hell, no,” he said. “You shoot what they want you to shoot. I didn’t want to work for nobody.”

One day, he went to the office of Gordon Parks, a famous black photographer.

“I said the articles came out about Dr. King and there was nothing about his family, only about his marching. So I told Gordon, I’m just going to document black people for the next 10 years.”

Parks was practical.

He told Alexander that it sounded like he had a plan, but that he’d starve. “Nobody is going to pay you to run around and shoot what you want to shoot.”

“I thought we needed more people out there documenting black people from a positive perspective,” Alexander said.

Alexander, the father of eight adult children, including two who are deceased, moved to Atlanta in 1976.

One year, during the National Black Arts Festival, Parks dropped by an exhibit he was holding with 60 photographs.

“Well, Jim, you ran around and shot what you wanted to shoot,” Parks said proudly.

Alexander hopes that one day his work will be used by researchers.

“There was a time when the only ones really documenting the everyday lives of black people were mostly independent black photographers,” he said. “The media were basically only photographing sports or crime and things of that sort. The everyday lives of black people had to be done by us. I figured that out early on.”


“The Photography of Jim Alexander”

Through March 31. Free. Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St. Roswell. roswellgov.com/discover-us/cultural-arts-center.