Secured in a climate-controlled archive in Chicago are five million images of the African American experience dating back to the ’40s. Inside rest rare images of black business owners and professionals, and intimate photographs of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., singer Billie Holiday and boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.
Now Johnson Publishing, parent company of struggling Ebony and Jet magazines, is seeking a buyer for the archive, which it estimates is worth more than $40 million.
“Nothing exists like it. It’s almost like an African American Getty,” said Johnson Publishing Chief Executive Desiree Rogers, referring to the renowned Getty photojournalism archive. “We are still the curators of the African American experience. That’s the mantle the editors wear,” she said.
Johnson has contracted Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography in New York, to help get the collection appraised and find a buyer. Rogers would not comment on potential buyers or whether commercial or historical archives had expressed interest.