Vera Jackson (1912 – 1999)
Vera Jackson (1912 – 1999) was a documentary photographer who is particularly noted for the evocative narrative content of her work. While her photographs provide an important historical record, they are also valuable for their strong storytelling capacity; comparing photographers to painters in their potential to create specific moods via precise technical choices, Vera used her work to illuminate the connections between humanity and the world. Capturing a diverse range of subjects, from the civil rights movement to celebrity culture, she consistently maintained her intention to facilitate empathy in front of, and behind, the lens.
Inspired by her father, an avid reader and photographer who introduced her to African-American newspapers at an early age, Vera enrolled in a government-sponsored photography program and took additional classes at Frank Wiggins high school, where she learned to print and enlarge images as well as improving her photography skills. This was particularly astute preparation for a career as a photojournalist; while the newspaper ink used was often poor quality, printed photographs needed to be sharp and reproduce well, attributes which were difficult to achieve. After working as an assistant to the photographer Maceo Sheffield, Vera began her career as a photojournalist for the California Eagle, an African-American newspaper operated by the pioneering publisher-editor and civil rights activist, Charlotta Bass. Presenting images made by black photographers for black readers, the paper challenged the stereotypes of the white-oriented publications of the time.
Through Charlotta, Vera began to engage more explicitly with politics, and became a strong advocate for civil rights. Accompanying Charlotta to protests at Los Angeles City Hall, amongst others, she photographed strikes and other protests; additionally, she frequently contributed letters to the Los Angeles Times on civil rights matters. Persisting in the view that the aesthetics of her work was secondary to its social function, Vera demonstrated her vivid awareness of the power of images to shape the trajectory of public attitudes and understanding. However, through her conscious approach to narrative composition, Vera did not simply document history – she helped to create it.
By Katherine Riley
Published in 1993, Vera Jackson’s life and work is explored in greater depth in Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.