After his mother passed away in 2018, Jeffrey Henson Scales made a surprising discovery while helping to clear out the family home. The photographer and photo editor for the New York Times found 40 rolls of film, which included forgotten images of the Black Panther Party and its founding members.
It was during the electrifying summer of 1967 when at age 13, Scales and his grandmother toured the Midwest to see relatives. As a black teenager, he saw the poverty and oppression of Northern black communities and when he returned to Oakland, he became immersed in photographing the Black Panther movement in Northern California.
The images he took chart the emergence of his awakening as a documentary photographer as well as a black man in a pivotal moment in the 20th century that feels all too familiar with Black Lives Matter. While some of his work was published at the time, many of his negatives were lost, until their discovery over five decades later. Since then, Scales has revisited these images and their foundation for his career as a photographer and journalist.
"I hadn't seen them since the 1960s and was struck by not only my origin story as a photographer but also the new urgency these images and the civil rights movement takes on in the context of today's ongoing struggle for racial justice," says Scales. "These images serve as a time capsule of sorts, not only of my adolescence and political awakening but also for the country whose ongoing struggle with racial inequality, police brutality and resistance is as urgent and timely as ever."
The photographs capture the emotion and anger felt towards injustice at that time whilst revealing Scales' urgency to document the struggle. Founded by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966, the Black Panther Party was active in the United States until 1982 with chapters in many major cities around the world. Scales forged close ties with the founding members in Oakland through his parents' connection to the civil rights movement of the era as well as on his own as a burgeoning documentary photographer.
In an interview with the New York Times, Scales remarked: "The movement was feeling like, we could change society. We could have an effect. It was a very exciting place to be. It was dangerous because of police violence against the Panthers. I remember being in the office where they had stacked up sandbags under the windows because you never knew when the police were going to just start opening fire on the office because they had done that at one of the Oakland offices."
The images also capture key events that convey the violence and tumult of the era including the leadership and the aftermath of the killing of Panther member Bobby Hutton. Several of Scales' photographs from that time were used in Black Panther publications including an iconic image of Bobby Seale.
Now, for the first time, a curated selection of photographs from these lost negatives will go on display at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem this month. In a Time of Panthers: The Lost Negatives launches on 16 September and runs until the end of October. There's also a forthcoming book, published by SPQR Editions.
Today, Jeffrey Henson Scales is a photographer and educator who curates The New York Times, photography column, 'Exposures' and is co-editor of the annual Year in Pictures special section. He is also an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of The Arts, Photography & Imaging department teaching photojournalism there since 2006.
Born in San Francisco, Scales began making photographs at age 11 and has spent his whole life dedicated to documentary and commercial photography. His work has appeared in many notable magazines and has been exhibited worldwide. 'House' is another famous series, in which he documented a single Harlem Barber Shop for over five years.
Of The Lost Negatives, he adds: "As a young activist, I learned how important it is to have a concrete mission to help improve the community you're speaking for. It's not just about slogans and protests. It's also about improving communities and serving underserved people in those communities, and how important that is. I've just sort of been recently thinking about what I learned and where it all fits 50 years later."