Jeffrey Henson Scales:
Revisiting the Black Panthers and Beyond
Jeffrey Henson Scales
Photograph by Chad Batka
KB: Tell me about your experience growing up in the Bay Area and your initial contact with the San Francisco Art Institute.
JHS: Well, my mother was a painter who was taking some classes at SFAI in the early ’60s, and due to child care issues, I would usually go with her when I was in first and second grade. Then when I was 13 and 14, I met Pirkle Jones and his wife, Ruth-Marion Baruch, while they were doing their Panther project.
Years later, I went to the Institute for a year, I think it was around ’73 or ’74, and then I ran out of money. But I studied with Pirkle while there, and I also studied with Ron Nagle, Reagan Louie, and Ed Guerrero. Those were the primary people I studied with.
KB: You went to SFAI as an undergraduate?
JHS: Yes. College is not cheap—I went to a lot of different colleges.
KB: What are some of your memories of being at SFAI?
JHS: It was always fun. It’s a great place, a great location and the faculty were really great. I like the idea of an art school focused on just doing art. My time there really shifted the nature of my work. I took a more serious formal approach to it. That’s where I first started using a medium format camera, which has been my primary camera now for most of my career.
KB: Was that 8 x 10?
JHS: No—a Hasselblad, a medium format camera. I didn’t start using an 8 x 10 camera until around the ’80s, and still not very often.
The Art Institute really altered how I approached doing my work and it opened me up to a broader influence of photographers. Prior to that I had been mostly looking at photojournalists from the Life Magazine “school” and The Family of Man kind of thing.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Gregg and Fredo, San Francisco, 1977.
KB: At SFAI you were exposed to more of an interdisciplinary influence. I mean, if you were studying with Ron Nagle, that was probably in sculpture, right?
JHS: Yeah, that was ceramics. And we had a lot of mutual friends because of his work in the music industry as a songwriter. But SFAI also opened me up to people like Henry Wessel, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. I was familiar with Diane Arbus, but I hadn’t really thought about those kinds of photographers outside of looking at it from a Life Magazine perspective.
My photography teacher in high school was a photographer named Bill Dane, and he was kind of from that same school, but I hadn’t quite made the connection.
KB: Do you remember any of your fellow students and others at SFAI from that time?
JHS: Yeah, Hilton Braithwaite, and as I recall, Angela Davis was there in some capacity at that time, as well. Also, Stanley Greene. We were all in an exhibition together at the time. A student, Dan Borris—we’re still good friends. He worked with me in my professional photography career for a few years when he moved to LA. Jim Geller was another student who was there then.
KB: So you went for one year to SFAI, and then you left and shortly thereafter moved to LA?
JHS: I had actually moved to LA before SFAI. I went to UCLA for a year, then I went to New York, and then I worked my way back to Los Angeles, and then I came up to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. And then I went back to Los Angeles.
I basically was in between San Francisco, LA, and New York for about 4 years. I was a tour manager for musical groups, so I was on the road. A lot of that time I lived at the Tropicana Hotel, in Los Angeles. I had a girlfriend in Greenwich Village, and I stayed at her place when I was there, and then at my parents’ house in Berkeley. I had three homes.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Ronee Blakley, actress/musician, Los Angeles, 1978.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Michael Jackson, Los Angeles, CA., 1978.
KB: A triangle. Bi-coastal and northern/southern California—not so bad.
Talk a bit about the tour managing and the music aspect of your life, and perhaps how it had an almost synaesthesia impact on your visual art practice.
JHS: My father was involved in the music industry in the ’50s and the early ’60s as a manager and a recording engineer, so I was around a lot of musicians. When I was at UCLA, I ran into one of the artists my father had worked with, Mary McCreary—she was in L.A. recording her first solo album. My father also owned high-end audio stores. When I was a really young kid, I used to go with him on installations, so I became handy with tech, and I helped Mary with her gear and stuff. And then I went on a short tour with the Pointer Sisters and Dan Hicks.
Then from that, in 1974, someone asked me to come out to New York. And I did—to work with Locomotiv GT, the first rock band from behind the Iron Curtain that was going to tour the U.S. Irving Azoff hired me to upgrade their equipment and to be their roadie—make sure all of their equipment was up to the standards that you needed for a major U.S. tour. I did that until their tour manager became problematic and I quit. One of the people I had met there said, “You’d really get along with this artist, Minnie Riperton. I think you guys should meet.” Minnie and I became fast friends and like family. I worked with her for about five years, up until her death. In the interim, I worked with a lot of other bands—Frank Zappa, Joe Walsh, and others.
KB: Wow. What was it like working with Zappa?
JHS: Oh, that was fun. He was an interesting, smart guy and his band members were very sophisticated. I was designing tech equipment for them. By that time, I was living more in L.A. By around 1976-77, I had gotten an apartment in Silverlake.
LA Weekly Cover #1 and #3.
KB: Let’s segue back to the photography aspect of your life. How did you get involved with LA Weekly?
JHS: While I was doing all this stuff in the music business, I was always obsessively taking photographs. After I went to SFAI, I moved up to a medium format camera. So, I was a tour manager who had a Hasselblad in his briefcase along with all the money. I used to take photos of the various people that I would run into and made postcards—which was something I learned from the photographer Bill Dane. He’d been doing street photography around the world and making a lot of postcards. In fact, he sent John Szarskowski thousands of postcards over the course of a few years and had an exhibition of them at MoMA.
So… I would send these postcards out, and I sent someone their picture, and then they called me and said, “Michael Douglas and some other people are financing a new local LA newspaper. We’re putting together the team. Would you be interested in being the photo editor?” And I said, “Sure.”
By 1978, Minnie had cut way back on touring due to health complications, and I had started doing record cover photography when I wasn’t on tour. I was also doing some west-coast work for The Village Voice. I’d been in New York so often, and had become friends with one of their staff photographers, so I became one of their west coast stringers.
KB: Michael Douglas was one of the first investors of the LA Weekly? I wasn’t aware of that.
JHS: Yeah, and there was a guy there named Jay Levin who was the editor. I remember us all there moving the furniture into this duplex on Sunset and Western, across the street from a bunch of motels that were very prostitution-oriented—there was quite a wild scene out the front window all the time.
Left: Magazine Cover, Denzel Washington, Los Angeles, 1990.
Right: Magazine Cover, Robert DeNiro, NYC, 1989.
KB: Talk about street photography!
JHS: So, we moved the furniture in and started putting out the newspaper. The photo editor job was basically being the staff photographer. I basically took all the pictures that were in the paper. I did that for about a year. Then there was an upheaval and the entire art side resigned after the art director, who had designed the initial year, was fired. It was a very crazy, Hollywood 1970s kind of place; a very hedonist environment, as many of the original staff had all previously worked at Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine. It was pretty wild. But it was fun.
Album cover commissions from the 1990's
KB: So, take us from there to what came next.
JHS: I left that job after about a year and was in LA doing record covers and magazine stories. I was trying to be a freelance photographer. For a freelance Black photographer in the late ’70s, it wasn’t a particularly supportive industry, shall we say. So I was the starving artist for a while. Then somewhere in that period of time, probably around 1980, I met Garry Winogrand. We started spending time together. One thing he told me he noticed about photographers in LA, is that they’re always waiting for an assignment. They’re always waiting for someone to tell them what to take a picture of, and they never realize their own potential. For me, this was a life-altering observation. I started shooting everyday—constantly. And people would ask me, “What are you taking a picture of?” And I’d say, “Nothing.” I spent a couple of years taking pictures of “nothing”. I would go out shooting at parades and fairs with Garry and do other shoots too. Minnie had died in 1979, and then when Garry died a few years later, I decided to move to New York. But in the interim, I had opened an archival printing lab—an archival high-end printing and processing lab on Wilshire and La Brea, in what was then the Mutual of Omaha building. I had a partner that was the real tech lab person, and I was a specialty printer for certain celebrity photographers like Norman Seeff. I did that for a few years, living a few blocks away. But then when I had to get a new apartment I said, “Well, gee, if it’s going to cost this much, I might as well move to New York.” Rents had been going up in LA and it was getting really expensive, and I had always loved New York and had been going there two or three times a year—so I moved. I went back to L.A. to shut down my office and lab, met my current wife Meg Henson, and got engaged. We moved to New York together. After a few months in Brooklyn, we moved to Harlem where we still live today. I continued to photograph every day in Harlem, and other parts of New York.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Meg Henson Scales, spouse, Harlem, circa 1990.
JHS: Photography was an industry that continued to be not particularly welcoming to Black photographers. But there were various publications that were supportive, like Black Enterprise magazine. Even though it was mainly corporate-style photography, they gave me a lot of work, so it paid the bills. And there was a magazine called YSB (Young Sisters and Brothers) with some great art directors—Fo Wilson and Lance Pettiford, who were very fond of 8 x 10 Polaroid and 8 x 10 shoots.
Black Enterprise Magazine covers.
JHS: The first time I did 8 x 10 I was living in L.A. and working on an album cover for an artist named Ronnie Montrose and his band, called Gamma 2. I worked with a really brilliant British designer named Mick Haggerty. After I did the back cover and the inner sleeve, he said, “I have this idea that I’m putting together for the front and we’ll collaborate on it. Do you shoot 8 x 10?” Of course I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” Which was not exactly the truth at that time. He said, “Okay; we’ll do this in about 3 or 4 weeks.” So I rented an 8 x 10 camera along with a book and practiced for a couple of weeks. Then we did this really fun album cover— shark fins cutting through a lawn. It was really quite beautiful.
We had to have the shark fins fabricated. This was all before Photoshop, and it was all hand-built. We also had to find someone who had a lawn that they would allow us to cut up and dig in the sharks. We hired a model and in the bottom of the frame there was a woman’s legs on a chaise lounge that the shark fins were approaching. It came out perfect. The light was beautiful, sort of a bright but hazy day—it was nice soft light.
But at the time, the Rolling Stones had released their album called Black & Blue. They had a billboard of a woman tied up and horribly beaten; it was really offensive. An organization called “WAVAW”—Women Against Violence Against Women—rightfully protested against violent imagery of women in record covers. Gamma 2’s label said, “Ah, we’re a little afraid of this” (our cover). So, we decided to go back and hire the model again and we had a man sit on the edge of the chaise, so you see a man’s arm along with the woman’s legs. Again, this is before Photoshop. We rented the same camera, the lens, got the chaise, got the model, but we took the transparency that we originally had shot, put it in the back of the view camera on the ground glass, set everything up and just shot the chaise and the printer shop stripped it in mechanically.
KB: What year did you and your wife move to NY?
KB: So, once you landed in NY, were you doing freelance work? How did you land at the NY Times?
JHS: Yes, I was doing freelance—record covers, documentary magazine projects, exhibitions, etc. And a lot of my work involved celebrities—I was photographing a lot of celebrities. In 1995 Mike Tyson was being released from prison and it was announced that he was going to have a hero’s welcome home parade up the main boulevard in Harlem—which happened to be in front of our house. My wife is a long-standing feminist/activist, and she said, “This just can’t happen. Yes, we all believe in redemption but you don’t give someone who’s getting out of jail for rape a hero’s welcome home parade.” It turned into a media frenzy. It got a tremendous amount of traction. We found ourselves on television every other day of the week for about three weeks speaking against the situation. We even had death threats and had to have police protection. Ultimately, they canceled the hero’s welcome parade, but due to the response from various of my celebrity clients, I was more or less blacklisted. My work just ended.
Gamma 2 Album cover (With Mick Haggerty).
Meg Henson Scales, Person of the Week.
KB: You were blacklisted because of your activism?
JHS: At the time, celebrities didn’t want politics; didn’t want their freelancers speaking out. It was kind of like being a hot potato. I lost most of my major clients in the film industry. I had been doing movie posters and things like that, and my work just stopped. So we had a couple of years of extreme poverty with only a few clients that continued to be supportive.
Then in 1998, I approached the NY Times about the possibility of being a part-time staff photographer. They said they didn’t have part-time staff photographers. But a couple of weeks later, they called and said, “Might you be interested in being a photo editor?” I said, “Yeah, all right, I’ll do that,” so they trained me for a week or two. And then they said, “We really like what you’re doing, tell us what department, what section you’d like to do here.” I looked at the paper, and the section that had the most photographers, and worked with some of the most interesting freelance photographers was the House & Home section. I said, “I’ll do that.” They were thrilled because apparently that was a difficult section to staff. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do this for five years, and then maybe I’ll do something different after that.” So I was hired as “a casual,” which is a full time freelancer without benefits. And in the House & Home section, the agreement was that I was supposed to photograph two cover stories a year. Then Michele McNally who was then at Fortune Magazine saw what I was doing there and wanted me to come on board at Time Inc. She said, “We’ll pay you more, whatever.” I leveraged that into getting hired full time at the Times in 1999.
KB: How did it evolve to what you’re doing now?
JHS: After that five-year period, I looked around and thought, “What else do I want to do here?” There was a section called The Week in Review, which was a Sunday news analysis section. And I thought, “That seems to be low stress and it’ll afford me some time to also do me.” The Times was a job to support my own work. As I like to tell people about full time work, it’s why it’s called a job and not a vacation.
In any case, I switched to The Week in Review, and I’m basically still there. Then at one point, they asked me, “Well, we’re doing this year in pictures thing, so why don’t you consult on that.” So I started co-editing that with a woman named Meaghan Looram, who is now the Director of Photography at the Times. We have to go through 250,000 to 300,000 pictures. But it is the high point of my year. I get to detach to just work on that and I do enjoy that quite a bit (The Year in Pictures 2021). That started about 12 or 13 years ago.
Then The Week in Review changed to Sunday Review and then turned into an opinion-based section some years ago and that altered the landscape a little bit. They asked me to create a regular photo essay feature, to curate for the Opinion section. We named it, “Exposures”—it’s a semi-regular feature.
And now here we are today.
KB: Let’s switch to your own work, even though your work at the Times is related. Let’s go to what you recently discovered and featured in your forthcoming book. That’s quite a story.
JHS: When I was 13 years old, I got involved in taking pictures of the Black Panthers. My father was involved in some activism and he had the same attorney as the Panthers. He also had some mutual friends—like when Eldridge Cleaver was getting out of prison, he was staying at the apartment of a family friend. So, I just sort of gravitated towards that as a young teenager.
KB: Wow, precocious.
JHS: I started taking pictures and the leadership encouraged me. They were the first people that ever published my work. Stephen Shames who was one of their main photographers became my mentor. He was a photographer with the Black Star Agency. So, I started following him around. That’s when I met Pirkle Jones and his wife, Ruth-Marion Baruch.They also became mentors. This was all around 1968, ’69 and ’70. Being a teenager, I wasn’t really paying that much attention to the idea of archiving or filing. I was just taking pictures and putting them in a box, and I lost track of the film from that time. I had a roll, here and there, and a couple of old prints. Also I would use different dark rooms: at the family home at first, and then I used a darkroom around the corner, which was Imogen Cunningham's darkroom. Her son, Ron Partridge, let me use it.
At one point, I thought maybe I left all of those negatives there. Or maybe they had been stolen by the FBI, which at that time was not out of the question because they were always around—they used to film my family coming and going from the house. I said, “Well, I guess those are gone. I’ve got a few to remember them by.” And I just went on with my life.
My mother passed away in 2017 and while we were preparing the house to sell, my brother and my stepfather said, “We found all this film; it’s probably yours, all this photo stuff.” So, I get a box filled with 40+ processed rolls of all the Panther stuff, and the Berkeley riot stuff. I literally had not seen these images for fifty years.
Jeffrey Henson Scales,
Black Panther Party member, Captain Bobby Bowens of the Richmond, CA., office at a Free Huey rally at Defremery Park, Oakland CA, 1968.
Jeffrey Henson Scales,
Kathleen Cleaver, May Day Rally San Francisco, 1969.
KB: Incredible! And they were just the rolls of film, or were there contact sheets?
JHS: They were negatives in sleeves, a lot of them poorly processed, because I was just 13 or 14. I didn’t really know how to develop film well.
KB: You were a kid!
JHS: But it was really amazing. Just rolls and rolls and rolls of stuff. It was interesting and bizarre to have my teenage self resurface in such a manner, particularly being attached to such a historical time.
KB: Very historical.
JHS: So, I started going through all of the material, and writing about it. And in our spare room in Harlem, I had like, 20 file boxes of film and prints that I had also shot over the last fifty years. So, I started a project, which the working title is, The Archive Project. I rented a WeWork office and had two interns from NYU scanning everything. Not high-quality scans; they were just basically making digital contact sheets on a scanner and logging them in, because I was not a big contact sheet guy. I would do it for clients but for my work I always would mostly read off negatives—I was an impatient teenager.
So starting in 2018, I had two people scanning for 20 hours a week in a little WeWork cubicle space. We were about two-thirds finished when the pandemic hit, so I had to shut it down before it was finished. Most importantly, we hadn’t gotten to developing a system to cross reference the scans to the actual film. The interns were cleaning and putting the film in archival pages and binders, but we had to pack that all up and move all the boxes back to my house. But last fall when things loosened up, I went and got another space in Times Square, a few blocks away from the Times, in a classic old building, the Paramount building on the corner of 43rd and Broadway . Now they’re back in the office in Times Square, cataloging and scanning away, and we hope to finish in April.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Bobby Seale speaking to media 1969, Oakland CA.
KB: But meanwhile, didn’t you already have a show of some of the work? And the book is in development?
JHS: Oh yeah—the Panther stuff. The gallery, Claire Oliver Gallery signed me on and we had an exhibition last fall, and the book is almost finished. Once the book is out we are hoping to travel the exhibition.
KB: I see, you’re talking about the entire body of your work, not just the Panther material.
JHS: The book and exhibition is just the Panther work as well as some Berkeley riot images. But The Archive Project is, EVERYTHING. Early in 2021 I was asked to participate in a show at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem in the middle of the pandemic. It was a small group show of about four or five artists called “Love Letters For Harlem.” I had put some pictures from a series I had done on a barbershop in Harlem from my first monograph: House. It was very well-received and the gallery signed me on as one of their artists. And Claire said, “All right, let’s do the Panther work show.” She decided to open the fall 2021 season with that work. It got a lot of traction. The people that published the House book had always been interested in doing something with this work, so we just started moving forward. I showed it to a couple of other publishers, but got radio silence. We’ve moved forward and we’re very close to completion. The forewords are all written, there’s just some last editing to do on the texts, and then the final design. We’ve already sent images over for sample proofs on the paper that we’re going to print on. It’s being printed in Verona.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, House’s Barber Shop, 1987-1992.
(Click LEFT/RIGHT for more)
KB: What’s the title and release date?
JHS: It’s called In a Time of Panthers: The Early Photographs by Jeffrey Henson Scales. Fall 2022 is the target.
“In a Time of Panthers: The Early Photographs by Jeffrey Henson Scales” Book Cover
KB: Well, given that work, and given how you’ve already mentioned the receptivity to Black photographers—or the lack thereof—and the nature of some of your work, including the Panther project, the barbershop in Harlem, and then flashing forward to what went down during the pandemic—George Floyd and Black Lives Matter—I’m wondering if you could speak about the span from fifty years ago to today. How do you see things at this moment in time?
JHS: It’s sadly very similar. There’s been some progress, but not enough. You know, the George Floyd thing, the Black Lives Matter movement, it all was really a remarkable year, that first year of the pandemic. I didn’t go to many of the things because of the pandemic. And being in my sixties, I said, “It’s probably not the best idea.” Besides, I’m not so much a photo journalist anymore. I’m not out on the streets trying to cover news events. And being head of a household and an employer, a lot of people are counting on me for a lot of things.
In some ways it’s worse now because of the rise of white supremacy extremists. There’s been some police reform that’s had some effect. At least we’re starting to see some convictions of some of these horrible police things. But at the same time, Donald Trump letting that monster loose, of the acceptance of white extremists, it’s a little bit like Pandora’s box. You open it up and it’s not so easy to close it back. It gave them a voice and a legitimacy in their minds. So in that way, it’s far worse. And in fact, you look at things like the pushback against history with the attempt to ban critical race theory—books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye being banned in school libraries, it’s really remarkably scary, and in ways worse even than it was before. Combine that with the long term effects of—I recall reading something by Naomi Klein and she referred to the idea of—toxic capitalism, and poverty. And we’re also having an issue with crime. So you have over-policing and under-policing conflicting each other. And what are the solutions? Right now, it’s just a mess, even adding to the problems with Trump inspiring that whole anti-Asian thing in the thick of the Covid lockdown in 2020. That’s become a sort of obsession of mine—trying to figure a way for the Asian communities and the Black communities to forge more of a unity in the face of this kind of anti-Asian, anti-Black attitude. I’ve been working on different ways to try to highlight that because that really bothers me. There are many things that bother me, but that’s just one of the current things that bothers me.
KB: On another level, don’t you feel that there’s an attempt, culturally at least, towards correction? It seems we’re seeing a lot more acceptance and diversity at least of Black artists across the spectrum of disciplines. At least it seems somewhat so.
JHS: Since George Floyd, it’s become a big thing. And in fact, with my work at the Times, they had a kerfuffle, I guess you’d call it, when they had an Op-Ed by a senator named Tom Cotton. I don’t know if you recall that he wrote an Op-Ed where he said the government should use the army against Black Lives Matter. That was in 2020. And I was the Photo Editor for that piece. I sent a note to my colleagues saying, “This article is really problematic.” But nobody listened and they published it. It turned into a firestorm. After that, everybody was trying to become more diverse, incorporate more African American voices.
KB: There does seem to be a conscious correction that is being attempted.
JHS: Yes, that’s nice. But I wonder if that’s feeding some of the pushback from the white supremacists.
KB: They’re trying to hold their place because the U.S. is turning into a more diverse country than what the white supremacists want to see.
JHS: I like seeing a lot of younger photographers thankfully having an easier road getting into publications, getting work, and all of that.
KB: The recent Carrie Mae Weems show at the Armory was amazing.
JHS: Yes, that was fun. I’ve known Carrie since the early ’80s. She and my wife went to high school together. We go way, way back.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, Carrie Weems and Meg Henson Scales, Harlem, circa 1990.
KB: As we’ve spoken about the pandemic and about how those of us who are a bit older haven’t been going out as much due to health concerns, I read that you yourself had a health issue that you overcame. There’s something perhaps to discuss about the fragility of life that everyone during the pandemic has had to face to some extent, and to realize how some people have had to deal with facing mortality sooner.
JHS: In 2008, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. When you get any kind of cancer diagnosis, it’s like, “Oh, shit. I could die of this.” It’s not quite your life flashing in front of your face, but….in the back of your mind, it’s flashing. I had it twice. After the first time, it made me think that the reason I’m working this full-time job at the Times is to support my photography, but in the years I was at the Times I sort of stopped shooting, because it's a heavy lift of a fulltime job. I felt I’d kind of gotten away from my own work. So I said, “All right. I’m going to start photographing every day.” My wife was also nudging me to do that. So I bought my first professional digital camera and I would go out every day and shoot on the street. As a healing process, it was very effective because street photography is very physical. It’s very much like improvised choreography. And I had a heavy DSLR camera, which just added to the physicality. I did that every day for a year, and then produced a body of work called That Year of Living, which Lightwork showed, along with producing a catalog. Jeff Hoone, the director of Lightwork, was very moved by the work. So that really helped getting me out on the street and moving around again.