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The Art of Impermanence

A confab with photographer Bob Self

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When you’re young, you think everything lasts forever, and as you get older, you realize everything that once was is now gone. Everything is changing. And sometimes you wish you could go back and capture some of those moments you’ll never get back.”

You may be forgiven if you start to read this and wonder, “Who is Bob Self?” He is a soft-spoken, softhearted, thoughtful, genuine sweetheart of a man who, if you’re not paying attention, could easily slip by you without your ever being aware of him.

Chances are, you’ve seen this man’s work more times than you know. A longtime Jacksonville resident, he has been the staff photographer for The Florida Times-Union for the last 34 years.

Wielding little more than a camera, he’s also acted as one of Jacksonville’s unofficial historians, meticulously documenting the daily life of the city and its outlying neighborhoods. In the process, he’s amassed an impressive and ubiquitous canon of work that captures the vivid, complex and, at times, haunting stories of its inhabitants.

Occasionally, stories like those of American Beach and LaVilla savagely joggle the viewer out of the ordinary constructs of day-to-day existence and into a whole new realm of experience.

I met Self at the Jacksonville Main Library on a Wednesday evening. It was a couple days before the opening of the Tale of My City exhibit in the MakerSpace Gallery; he was there supervising the display of his works featuring the LaVilla neighborhood. Clad in slacks and a white polo shirt, sporting a well-manicured white mustache, Self looked like someone I imagined my dad would play golf with and compare stock portfolios. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“No two days have ever been the same,” said Self, admiring a section of his work. “You go out and the circumstances are always fluid. You never know what’s around the next corner … .

“Heck, I went off to college thinking I was gonna be a veterinarian. But then, after struggling through the core biology courses–and then bombing the core chemistry courses—I realized that maybe vet school was not in my future.”

Though he had given up his dreams of becoming a doctor to the animal kingdom, he was still committed to doing something in the sciences. So he took as many science courses as he could, thinking that maybe if he threw enough at the wall, something would stick. That notion vanished when he took his first photography course.

“One semester, I decided to take the entry-level photography course at the University of Florida’s fine arts school and a beginning photojournalism class at the journalism school. And that basically set the stage for everything I’ve done ever since.”

Self credits his predilection for the sciences with his desire to document the world around him. According to the photographer, “Some people document with the written word, others use mathematic formulas or paints and canvas. I use a camera … . I’m a big fan of the scientific method. You may have a basic understanding of something and want to understand it better. So you go out, you experience it, you document it. You see what it reveals to you.

“What you don’t do is go in thinking you know the answer. I try not to go into any project with an agenda. I go in with clear eyes and see what’s revealed to me. And that’s largely what happened with my work on American Beach.

“ … I had been at the paper a few years. And I kept hearing about this place on Amelia Island called American Beach. I would ask questions about it and the responses I got were, ‘Well, ain’t that the black beach?’ And I was always taken aback by that. I mean, I couldn’t believe something like this still existed.”

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For those born after desegregation, American Beach may not carry much of any meaning other than as another historic beach. Certainly much of its history has been collectively forgotten. For a few folks, however, it still has strong emotional and personal ties to a time when blacks and whites were divided by Jim Crow Era laws prohibiting blacks from going to “white” beaches.

American Beach was founded in 1935 by Jacksonville’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. The idea was to create a place for his employees to take their families and friends on vacation, as well as enable them to own property on the shore. At its zenith, it had effloresced into a kind of beach resort for local African-American families. It was also a magnet for celebrities like Ray Charles and Cab Calloway, who came to ply their creative crafts.

However, as the mid-’60s thundered to a close, taking desegregation with it, American Beach began to lose its appeal. New horizons opened up for African-American families who had previously had only one place to enjoy. No longer relegated to just one beach, each year fewer and fewer families visited its shores.

By the time Self made it there three decades after desegregation, it was something of an anachronism. American Beach had no reason to exist in the current time and place, and yet it persisted.

“I guess it was so interesting because something like a segregated beach was just not normal to me,” said Self. On a day off on a summer weekend in ’89, Self decided to take a couple cameras and just walk the sand.

“And it was magic. It was absolute magic,” said Self. “I got there and it was just beautiful. There were thousands of people, big crowds, and I was pretty much the only white face there.

“What it had evolved into at that point was just a big party place. There were some people who still lived there year ’round, but it was mostly a place where everybody came to see and be seen. You’d hang out, you’d show off the new car or the new whatever, you’d barbecue, you’d flirt,” he laughed. “It was
just a wonderful dynamic of characters and relationships.

“There was nothing really architecturally or geographically significant about the area—it was just the social dynamic and I immediately fell in love with it. And I kept going back. And going back. And taking photos. And I eventually ended up with a nice little body of work that I parlayed into a small portfolio of prints. I’d show them to anybody who would listen to me.”

Perhaps through Self’s persistence, dumb luck or divine intervention, he eventually met a guy who knew a guy who helped him write a grant for continuing his work on the beach.

“I ended up with [a grant] from the Florida Humanities Council which enabled me to take a leave of absence in order to spend 16 weeks out there, just documenting the community,” said Self.

One condition of the grant was that there had to be an audience for the work—it couldn’t just occupy a shelf or crate somewhere, it had to be shown. Self’s efforts paid off. After roughly four months of work, he created a display consisting of 40-plus framed pieces with text panels that quoted excerpts from oral history interviews with various residents and visitors to the beach. Seen as both culturally and historically significant, the photos were put on display by Tallahassee’s Museum of Florida History, then carted throughout the state to various galleries and museums.

“When I went out there, I was just curious,” said Self. “And initially nobody trusted me. They thought I was either a developer who came out to buy up the place, or a cop. Everybody was convinced I was one or the other. So the first month, I spent a lot of time just answering questions. Just talking to people.

“And after a while, I wouldn’t say that I became a part of the community, but more of a benign presence. They didn’t distrust me, you know. Then, eventually, people start inviting you to come have a beer with them, or come over for dinner, and slowly you build these relationships.

“I didn’t go in with any kind of agenda, or an idea of what I thought it should be. I just wanted to document the place, and the people, and the dynamics at that point in time. And record my observations and let the work speak for itself. What I didn’t know was that, within 10 years, it was all over.”

Shortly after Self’s time at the Nassau County enclave, the crowds quit coming. Self isn’t sure why, but surmises that it was inevitable. He recalls that at the time of his visit, only the grandparents really remembered the purpose and importance of the beach. They had strong, lurid memories of what it was like to live during segregation, but as generations came and went, their children and their children’s children no longer felt the emotional and social connections to the place and eventually stopped going there.

“The fact that it had still hung on so long after desegregation was just incredible,” Self said.

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Bob Self’s work in LaVilla started in a similar manner.

“It was a few years after I had done the work on American Beach. They [the city] were going in and starting to tear out the LaVilla neighborhood and I thought, ‘Why not document this, do something similar like with American Beach? Just go document it.’

“So on slow days, I’d just go walk the streets of the neighborhood. And when I first started, it was a pretty scary neighborhood, especially for a scrawny little 27-year-old. There were a couple of bars on Davis Street that had hundreds of people spilling out into the streets. Pretty wild crowds. It was intimidating.

“As I began documenting, fewer and fewer people were in the area. Businesses were being bought up by the city and closed down, and I just continued roaming the streets—getting to know the dynamic of the neighborhood and the people and the businesses that still remained.”

According to Self, what happened with LaVilla and, in some sense, what happened with American Beach, is what happened to so many other African-American communities that had thrived during segregation.

“It was because they had to–they had their own schools, their own businesses, their own social organizations … it was a self-contained community. Partially because they had to be. But when segregation ended, there was now the choice of going elsewhere,” said Self.

When the upper echelons of the community started moving away—doctors, teachers, bushiness owners who lived and owned property in that neighborhood—it became a shell of the busy, bustling neighborhood it once had been.

With the flight of the community leaders, the properties that remained were simply abandoned, or were bought up by absentee property owners who had no stake in the neighborhood. As the dynamic of the area changed, its financial and social underpinning began to fall apart.

By the time Self got to it, the community had already been in a 20-year free-fall.

“I spent about 17 months just documenting the area,” said Self. “Getting to know the business owners, the drug dealers, the scavengers who would wait for a property to be abandoned so they could go in and scrap it.

“I wasn’t looking for big moments,” he said, gazing at one of his photos of a couple having a crab-boil in their yard. The man tending the fire is fixated on a great fiery cauldron. The woman
behind him waits impatiently for the late afternoon repast. The sun weighs heavy and smoldering in the humid Southern sky. The whole scene has a powerful sedative feel. It’s something simple, as mundane as cooking dinner, and yet it elicits a kind of arcadian ideal.

“I wasn’t looking for high drama. It’s more low drama,” Self added. “It’s more daily routine for whatever life is still there. Just trying to capture the little moments of it. It was beautiful. It was late in the afternoon, the sun is low on the horizon. And it was just a real sweet situation.

“It’s normalcy. It’s just daily life. An aspect that was slowly going away with the neighborhood. It goes back to the idea of impermanence. Nothing ever stays the same. Things are always changing.

“I don’t think I knew it initially, but the older I get, the more these things weigh on me. I’ve learned that you should never wait. You should never think, ‘Oh, I’ll go back and take that picture another day.’ Because as soon as you do that, it won’t be there anymore.”

For Self, the finished product is secondary to the experience, and perhaps that is what makes him a truly original photojournalist.

“It’s the experience of being out there and being in the midst of it all. It’s getting to learn and know the people of the community. But I would say that the most significant experience for me, that incidentally produced the most cohesive body of work for anything that I’ve done up to this point, was American Beach. It’s the one thing I think has some potential to be relevant long after I’m gone.”

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