A visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art changed Molly Low’s life forever. There, in a gallery, she stumbled upon photographer Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor. That landmark 1985 collection featured black-and-white portraits of San Franciscans, both wealthy and impoverished, in their homes. In the borders of the photos, Goldberg’s subjects had scrawled words about themselves.
Low was deeply moved. “This,” she told her husband, “is what I want to do.”
She’d always had an interest in photography. After studying to be a “lay psychotherapist” in the late ’60s, she found herself constantly snapping pictures of her four children and many friends. She even had a darkroom in her kitchen.But it wasn’t until Low and her husband retired to San Diego, when both were in their 50s, that the New York ex-pat discovered her true calling. After a couple of college classes and lots of trial and error, Low’s foray into cinema vérité was underway.
Now 83—though you’d never guess it looking at the slim, sparkling photographer—Low is the featured artist in a new exhibition at UCSD’s Geisel Library. Hidden Faces of La Jolla: Portraits of Black San Diegans, on display through Feb. 28, documents the decline of a once vibrant African-American community in the posh coastal enclave. Curator Cristin McVey, whose doctoral dissertation at UCSD focused on the forgotten histories of early black communities in the San Diego region, has drawn together an intriguing cache of ephemera to reveal the stories behind Hidden Faces. According to McVey, from 1920 to 1945 there were about 500 blacks in La Jolla. Over the decades, however, those numbers dwindled dramatically.
Low first heard about this subsection of La Jollans in the late 1980s. She’d befriended a black woman named Ruth Dixon at a party and told Dixon that she really wanted to photograph a black community. She’d thought about gospel singers, but that already had been done.
Low’s voice drops to a whisper as she recounts the rest of her conversation with Dixon, then a professor of literature at City College. “‘Molly,’ she told me, ‘Why don’t you photograph the blacks living in La Jolla? They’re dying out and they need to be documented before they all die.’”
It was perfect subject matter for Low. She’d already finished her first series, Images of Aging, a collection of portraits she took at retirement and nursing homes. She followed Goldberg’s formula almost exactly, even using a Hasselblad camera, but her photographs took on their own flavor. Low considers herself a writer, too, and she spent a good deal of time interviewing her subjects and helping them craft meaningful responses. (Many of Goldberg’s subjects jotted brief captions for the photos—fascinating and revealing, but in different ways.)
“I wanted concrete, interesting answers,” Low explains. “They wrote what it was like to give up their homes and their things and basically live the rest of their lives in one room.”
Low says she had always been fascinated by outsiders—people who didn’t quite fit in.
“As a child, I felt sort of out of it,” she admits. “I didn’t know how to get along with little girls and all their giggles and playing house and dressing up. I felt on the fringes, so I think I’ve always been drawn to other people on the fringes.”But while the elderly were tucked away from society’s view, these black residents of (very white) La Jolla were living on the fringes quite openly. Low says she felt instantly at home.
“Once they realized I wasn’t trying to get them to sell me their houses—that happened a lot!—or any other nefarious activities, they welcomed me,” Low says. “I really did want to document their lives. The people I photographed would tell me about their friends, too.”
The resulting 26 photos, taken between 1988 and 1990, are incredibly intimate: a slender young woman curled on her couch, shoes on the carpet nearby, a book by her side; a toddler proudly posing with his first football; an old man surrounded by the mementoes of his life.
Low says she moved an item here and there—for the lady on the couch, she plucked a book about black women from the bookshelf—but mostly she waited until the subjects looked relaxed and natural in their own surroundings before snapping the shutter.
“When I’m taking a picture, I don’t have any preconception; I have a blank mind. Because I’ve never been there before, I just go by my instinct, whatever my eye thinks is right.”
Their houses and apartments were generally small, she recalls, without stating the obvious (La Jolla is, after all, a “village” of cliff-teetering mansions). “They were lovely people. They were all open. I had questions for each of them:
Did they experience any prejudice? What was their life like here? Why did they come here?”
The answers, Low says, sometimes surprised her. One man had never married so that he could take proper care of his aging mother. “That was very dear, but also unexpected.” And sometimes, they broke her heart. “There were two physicists from UCSD and an architect, and they both experienced prejudice.”
Low exhibited these photos at the La Jolla Library in 1990, not long after she’d completed the series. Though all were invited, only a couple of her subjects showed up. She tried to track them down for this UCSD show, too, with little success. Many, she presumes, have passed away or just moved away. Sadness flits across her face as she mentions this.
Low’s done other series since then, including portraits of at-risk teens and women in recovery. And recently, the octogenarian collected her favorite prints and had handsome books bound as gifts for her children. While capturing all those other lives in photographs, Low’s own life, it turns out, was captured beautifully in their taking.
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