Norman Baynard’s Influence on San Diego – Timothy Wong

From cave drawings to elaborate paintings, humans have created works of art to record events and evoke emotions using visual pictures. So with the inception of photography in the early 1800s, this new art form was created for the same purposes, but required its own skills and expertise. As photography grew into a profession, photographers from different ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds captured their respective culture and lifestyle. One of these individuals was Norman Baynard; born in Pontiac, Michigan in 1908, he was raised there until his parents divorced, and moved to California with his father in the early 1920s. Baynard grew to be a commercial photographer in the Logan Heights area, and recorded thousands of images of African Americans during the 1900s. In doing so, Baynard challenged the white narrative by creating his own, illustrated the adversity towards black photographers and photographs, and continues to influence society today.

With the westward expansion, many people traveled to states such as California to start a new life filled with adventure and opportunities. More specifically, many African Americans were fleeing from Jim Crow laws. Therefore, Mr. Baynard’s photos were unique since most African American photographs were usually taken in the south, while his were taken in the suburban city of San Diego.[1] In doing so, he recorded a unique part of the African American history that is often overlooked, and raised awareness of the African American narrative in the west. One of his photos of Johnnie Williams, who was one of the first African American detectives in San Diego, was a perfect representation of challenging the master narrative. Mr. Williams is standing in the middle of a room, posing proudly and confidently in his police uniform.[2] This photo is significant because it successfully embodies the African American struggle of finding a place in society; many faced adversity when trying to find employment. However, Williams was able to defy this norm, and find success in a profession that was difficult for African Americans to enter. This photo can also draw parallels back to Baynard: both he and Williams were pioneers for African Americans in their respective fields. They challenged white dominance through integration, therefore creating their own narratives and fighting for African American representation. By documenting an integral moment in San Diego and African American history, Baynard created photos to combat the white narrative, while reminding others to do the same.

African Americans have faced discrimination in many fields and industries, including photography. For example, the first photo taken by an African American to be put into a book was almost 100 years after the first book with photographs was published.[3] African American voices were completely silenced for a century, unable to take part in a form of media that whites actively participated in. In the same way, Baynard overcame African American underrepresentation by specifically photographing African Americans. This was uncommon, as photos were generally only taken for rich whites that could afford photo shoots. If blacks were in photos, they were assuming inferior roles or in the background. This change in having African Americans as the focus of photos emphasized how they are their own individuals, and that these images “reveal the variety of lives African-Americans had in the 19th century, particularly the ones that reveal triumphs over adversity.” [4] By challenging black systematic oppression in San Diego, Baynard’s photographs enabled blacks to rise above prejudice and racial stereotype; they could dictate how they were viewed. By allowing them to shape their own image, blacks can express themselves, as well as expose the racism that is still alive and prevalent in society. The visual representation of the advancement of blacks in society provides an encouraging sentiment for viewers, but also illuminates how much work there is still to be done to achieve equality.[5] As photography is a medium of self-representation, Baynard revealed the challenges as an African American photographer, as well as the effects of having blacks as the subjects — instead of objects — in his photos.

Decades later, Baynard’s photos continue to shape and influence the San Diego area. His collection of 28000 images were posthumously donated to the San Diego History Museum, where they decided to organize and dedicate an exhibit on his work. With his myriad of random photos, the museum sorted and filtered them for almost two decades until just 500 of Baynard’s best shots were chosen to be digitally reproduced and used in the exhibit. However, since Baynard was a commercial photographer, he rarely wrote down names or dates with the photos he took. Therefore, many African Americans living in the San Diego/Logan Heights area were brought in to try and identify the people and places in the photographs.[6] This indirectly enabled residents to enjoy the photos, many not even knowing that they existed, and to take a take a trip down memory lane. Despite financial and logistical problems, the Norman Baynard exhibit was finally opened to the public at the San Diego History Center in 2011. With just a camera, Baynard captured daily life, life changing events, and everything in between for African Americans in the 1940s to 70s. But most importantly, he created a portrait of the struggles and challenges of blacks in the west. These photos can be used as a reminder to society that blacks are not just static in the South, but face oppression everywhere in the nation. Moreover, Baynard highlights that the fight against bigotry is not over but has come a long way in the past few years. Norman Baynard continues to influence society today, not only with his photos, but with the legacy and precedent he set for African American photographers.

With the advancement of technology, photography has become a medium that can be used by anyone with a phone. Therefore, we do not experience the same barriers to recording people and events that those 50 years ago had to struggle with. However, Baynard was successful in enabling thousands of African Americans to express and permanently etch themselves into San Diego’s history, as well as the overall African American narrative. As a photographer in California, Baynard challenged societal norms and black oppression by documenting the struggles and successes of African Americans. His photos urge viewers today to interpret them for what they suggest about the political, cultural, and social changes and events happening during the 1940s to 70s, and how they continue to influence society today. [7]

[8]

Bibliography

Baynard, Norman. “91:18476-1072.” San Diego History Center. Jan. 22, 1979. sandiegohistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/DDBC0964-99ED-4EA0-BBB1159362211467.

Pincus, Robert L. “Racism’s subjects stare out of time.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. May 28, 1995. https://advance-lexis-com.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:4P7G-PSY0-TWDC-M4GY-00000-00&context=1516831.

Sheehan, Tanya. “The Journal of American History. 93, no. 3 (2006): 815-19. doi:10.2307/4486420. www.jstor.org/stable/4486420.

Stetz, Michael. “Black History Flashback; Wanted: names, dates to go with historic collection of local photos.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. February 27, 2011. https://advance-lexis-com.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:528Y-DRJ1-JBM1-B3DJ-00000-00&context=1516831.

Williams, Carla. “The Black Photographers Annual.” Aperture, no. 223 (2016): 30-33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43825319.

Footnotes

[1]  Michael Stetz, “Black History Flashback; Wanted: names, dates to go with historic collection of local photos.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. February 27, 2011.https://advance-lexis-com.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:528Y-DRJ1-JBM1-B3DJ-00000-00&context=1516831.

[2]  Norman Baynard, “91:18476-1072.” San Diego History Center. Jan. 22, 1979. sandiegohistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/DDBC0964-99ED-4EA0-BBB1-159362211467.

[3] Carla Williams, “The Black Photographers Annual.” Aperture, no. 223 (2016): 30-33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43825319.

[4] Robert L. Pincus, “Racism’s subjects stare out of time.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. May 28, 1995. https://advance-lexis-com.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:4P7G-PSY0-TWDC-M4GY-00000-00&context=1516831.

[5] Tanya Sheehan, “The Journal of American History. 93, no. 3 (2006): 815-19. doi:10.2307/4486420. www.jstor.org/stable/4486420.

[6] Stetz, “Black History Flashback; Wanted: names, dates to go with historic collection of local photos.”

[7] Sheehan, “The Journal of American History.

[8] Norman Baynard, “91:18476-1072.”

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