The Challenge of the Johnson Publishing Archives

George Lucas and Mellody Hobson want control of the famous collection. But what are they getting themselves into?

*The original story has been updated following a sale of the archives. See “Endnote”.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the power couple of businesswoman Mellody Hobson and her husband, famed filmmaker George Lucas, have filed a motion to take control of the legendary archives of Johnson Publishing Company, the historic empire that founded Ebony and Jet magazines, which in recent weeks filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation. The collection was used as collateral for a loan provided by the couple to the publisher that remains unpaid.

Assuming the court works in their favor, there could be few better solutions to widespread concerns about the future of the storied collection.

Hobson, has in many ways both public and private shown her commitment to the cultural and economic advancement of the African American community, which is what the archives represent. Moreover, as a longtime friend of JPC CEO, Linda Johnson Rice, and the Johnson family, Hobson brings a sincere appreciation of the intrinsic value of this rich historical record.

Lucas, as one of the world’s foremost storytellers, brings the ability to see beyond the obvious, a critical skill to brings the archives back to life in creative ways. As a technology innovator, he also has access to tools to preserve and utilize the materials far beyond what the struggling company could ever muster.

As Hollywood and corporate royalty, the couple also enjoys extensive relationships with many of the subjects of some of the best photographs in the collection, relationships that will be very important to facilitate future uses of those photos (more on that later).

But most important perhaps is that the couple is wealthy enough to treat the archive as the gift to history that it is, and to reject any pressure to “monetize” its contents— a task that dozens of talented editors, executives, and licensing managers at the company found complicated and often frustrating for a number of reasons missed by outside observers.

Here are a few of the challenges facing the collection’s next owners:

What’s Actually in the Archives?

Most articles and conversations about the JPC archives predictably focus on the photographs, some five million according to popular estimates. The Wall Street Journal also noted video and audio, largely from Johnson-produced radio and television shows, specials and events.

But what of the content of the nine distinct magazines (Negro Digest, Black World, Ebony Jr, Tan, Tan Confessions, Jet, Ebony, Ebony Man, Ebony South Africa) produced by JPC over 65 years?

And what of company ledgers, correspondence, contracts, invoices, emails, travel documents, illustrations ads, first drafts, books published by its book divisions and more?

As a storyteller, Lucas will no doubt recognize that the real jewels, the revealing things that make simple history compelling into compelling tales, are buried between the lines of those items. If there are TV shows, movies and other stories to come from the collection, this is where those stories begin.

The Legal and Digital Dilemma

The photo archive is perhaps more appropriately described as a collection. That’s because mixed among the thousands of original photos are also many more millions of the photos that make up all magazines — studio-provided movie stills, agency promotional material, wire service photos, stock, advertising art and work done (and owned) by freelancers, some alive, some long deceased.

In fact, many of Ebony and Jet’s most iconic photo features — the Jet Beauty of the Week, Campus Queens, Jet Weddings — were almost exclusively freelance photos provided by the subjects themselves. Likewise, several covers of powerful celebrities were taken by high profile photographers who maintain the rights to the work.

And because the vast majority of the collection contains no metadata, it is difficult to determine which photographs fall into which category.

For that reason, much of the Johnson photo collection lacks a critical element — the clear legal right to use those photos in new ways. Extending those permissions will require extensive outreach to living subjects and surviving estates.

Of more pressing concern is that the bulk of the collection remains un-digitized. The cost to do so –photo by photo — has always far exceeded any estimates of the realistic return on that investment. New improvements in technology may make that an easier feat now.

Duplication and Quality

The Johnson photo archive has been estimated at as much as five million images. Yet, these are not necessarily five million separate and distinct images of equal quality or value.

Anyone with a cell phone knows that there are photos you post on Instagram, then there’s the other several hundred taking up space on your hard drive.

Multiply that times 65 years across nine magazines and you get a sense of what the collection holds — some true gems, dozens of photos on the same film roll that look just like the true gems, and vastly more that were rejected, usually for good reason.

When you weed out what’s left to get to what’s truly great and noteworthy, that number falls to the low thousands.

The 1970 Factor

Most experts who have seen the archive and know photography share the opinion that best works in the collection were shot prior to 1970. After that date, the artistic value of the photos drops dramatically. This is not a knock on the photographers, but the result of an equally dramatic cultural and economic change.

Prior to 1970, Ebony’s subject matter focused on the famous and celebrated. Those people had global images to maintain, and photo shoots with them guaranteed great lighting, hair and makeup, proper poses and attention to detail.

With the heightened mobility and advancement of the post-civil-right era, more ordinary people became extraordinary. But those people were just happy to be featured and not very demanding about the end result, and the quality of photos reflect that dynamic.

Post-1970, there is a decided visual shift from photos that speak 1000 words to photo that need those 1000 words to put them into context. In practical terms, that question of quality limits the marketing and profit potential of a great deal of the work.

That’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that none of this is insurmountable. It is also not unique. Other legacy publications like Playboy, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated have worked through similar issues. But sorting it all out will require extensive resources, patience, curation and top-notch legal work. No doubt Hobson and Lucas are up to the task.

Still, the archive’s true value is really in its sum, not its individual parts. It is not in the snapshots of Belafonte and Ali at some particular point in time, but the cumulative, sensitive coverage of their progress over decades. It is in seeing Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll as in-house models, then later as TV and movie stars. It is in the details you must look deeper to understand — for example, where Jet newlyweds vacationed in 1955 versus the world that was open to them 25 years later. It is in the picture of everybody in your neighborhood who appeared in Ebony at least once.

Collectively, the archive is nothing less than a visual and documentary representation of the evolution of a people in the second half of the 20th century.

But deciding its future requires cultural sensitivity and a commitment to its signficance in history that should not be muddied by the motivation to get your money back anytime soon.

On that count, Hobson and Lucas are perfect.

UPDATE: An auction of the Johnson Archives was held over a one-week period in July of 2019. The judge presiding over the bankruptcy set the auction’s bid floor at $13.6 million, the amount owed to Hobson and Lucas as creditors. If no other bidder made an offer, Hobson and Lucas would have been allowed to foreclose. Otherwise, they were offered to the opportunity to bid against others with a $13.6 million credit or simply take their money back. In either instance, a win/win for the couple whatever the outcome.

While there is no public list of all who bid for the archives, court records show evidence that representatives of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NBA Properties and the estate of Pulitzer Prize winning Ebony photographer, Moneta Sleet, likely made last-minute claims to parts of the archives of interest to them.

After an extended bidding process, a consortium of major foundations including the Getty Trust, Mellon Foundation Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation purchased the archive for $28.5 million, partly in a reported effort to avoid the collection going to a private bidder. The consortium has since announced that the archive will be shared between the Getty Trust and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Eric Easter is a producer and chairman of Black Public Media. He was the head of digital and entertainment for Johnson Publishing from 2006–2010 and led the digitization of Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest and Ebony Jr.

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Producer. Writer. Creator. Media Exec. @ericeaster

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