Exhibit of rare blues photos debuts at National Blues Museum

St. Louis is getting a first look at some rare blues photographs in a traveling exhibition opening this weekend at the National Blues Museum.

“The Sepia Magazine Photo Archive: Blues in Review” showcases largely unseen images that originated in Sepia, the classic African-American magazine. The Fort Worth, Texas-based publication by George Levitan ceased operation in 1983.

St. Louis is the first city where “Blues in Review” will be seen; museum visitors can view the exhibit in the Scott and Diane McCuaig and Family Gallery through Oct. 13.

BB King

A lot of these photographs have never been seen beyond their original publication,” says exhibit curator Carole L. Anthony. “You could chalk that up to a number of reasons.”

She says the photos sat ignored in boxes for many years.

Thirty-five images are featured in the exhibit. Some blues artists are featured in multiple photos, including B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Jimmy Reed and Ruth Brown.

Others include Muddy Waters, WC Handy, Etta James, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Johnnie Taylor, Bo Diddley, Ethel Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Guitar Slim, Gatemouth Brown, LaVern Baker, Dinah Washington, Little Willie John, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Witherspoon.

“It features artists of the blues genre, some not as well known as others but nevertheless still significant in the evolution of blues music,” Anthony says.

All of the photos are black and white, and none have been retouched. “I wanted to keep the integrity of these photos,” she says.

The photos date from the late 1940s through the early ’60s.

The images were made by various photographers, including Calvin Littlejohn, who took several of them. Many of his photos were taken at the Masonic Temple, “the only place in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where blacks could go perform,” Anthony says.

Ruth Brown

Sepia magazine

“I feel from a historical standpoint the magazine carried some weight in its significance with black culture because of the period when it was published and who owned it and who worked for it,” Anthony says. “The staff were maids and cooks and general laborers who wanted an opportunity.”

Boxes containing the photos arrived in 2005 at the African American Museum in Dallas. They hadn’t been properly cataloged or preserved. Anthony was allowed to go through the boxes, some of which were waterlogged.

She jumped right in.

“I always had an interest and curiosity about Sepia and wondered what happened to it,” she says. “I remember my sister reading it. My most impressionable experience of reading Sepia was reading the Sepia front cover picture of Tammi Terrell in 1970 announcing her death. ”

The African American Museum gave Anthony the photos — about 1,000 in all — so she could give them wider exposure. Some eventually could go back to the museum in Dallas .

In 2009, Anthony curated a larger exhibit titled “The Sepia Photo Archives Celebrating the History of African-Americans in Music” for the Rock and Roll of Fame and Museum.

Anthony was supposed to bring one of her exhibits to a museum in California, but the exhibition was canceled when the museum’s funding became restrictive.

She is working on a documentary and a book based on the photos.

What “The Sepia Magazine Photo Archive: Blues in Review” • When Saturday through Oct. 13; free curator’s talk at noon Saturday; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday-Monday • Where National Blues Museum, 615 Washington Avenue • How much Museum admission is $10-$15 • More info 314-925-0016; nationalbluesmuseum.com

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