Growing up in California’s legendary Bay Area in the 1960s, African-American photographer Jeffrey Henson Scales had a front-row seat to the hippie explosion in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the Black Power Movement in Oakland. In those heady, transformative years, Scales amassed an extraordinary collection of photographs, the bulk of which had gone missing for the past 50 years.
“I always assumed it was stolen by the FBI,” Scales says. “At the time, it wasn’t an unfeasible assumption because my family was under surveillance by the FBI. I assumed they were the FBI — they looked like they were in the Matrix, sitting in unmarked cars parked in front of our house and making movies of us.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that the photographs finally resurfaced. While cleaning out the house after Scales’ mother had passed, his stepfather and older brother came upon a cache of 40 rolls of film stashed in the back of an old filing cabinet. From this extraordinary find, Scales unearthed some of his earliest works made in 1960s California — including 15 rolls documenting his time with the Panthers.
In the new exhibition and forthcoming book, “In a Time of Panthers: The Lost Negatives”, Scales brings together works made between 1967–1971, offering a timely at efforts to confront police brutality, racial injustice and inequality, and the horrors wrought by capitalism — issues the nation continues to confront today.
Soul on Ice
Jeffrey Henson Scales first took up photography at the tender age of 11, when his father, Emmet Scales Jr., gave him a camera. A hobbyist in his own right, the elder Scales kept a darkroom in the house and gifted his sons with a box containing every issue of LIFE magazine from 1936 to 1963. Pouring over the oversized pages, the young Scales absorbed the work of Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith.
In 1963, the family moved from Haight-Ashbury to a magnificent house in the Berkeley Hills. As artists and activists, Scales’ parents were deeply immersed in the local scene. His father, Emmet, worked as an audio engineer who kept a reel-to-reel in the trunk of his red Chrysler 300 so he could record local musicians while his mother, Barbara, was a painter and filmmaker who brought Scales with her to art classes at University of California-Berkeley.
They also introduced their children to the political issues of the time, bringing them along to protests against segregation in San Francisco’s hotels. But Scales’ political awakening came during 1967. Though it was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, across the nation it was better known as the “long, hot summer.” Scales visited relatives in the Midwest, traveling through Minneapolis, Des Moines, Chicago, and Detroit where he witnessed the explosion of uprisings and civil unrest. “I hadn’t really experienced that,” Scales says. “I grew up in a luxurious Berkeley Hills scenario and it pushed me to get further involved with activist causes like the Black Panthers, who were making waves in Oakland.”
Seize the Time
By the mid-1960s, Jeffrey Henson Scales’ father became involved with the newly emerging Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Co-founded by college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966, the BPP was formed to create armed citizen patrols to confront and challenge the issue of police brutality in Oakland. Studied in the law, the BPP fought for Constitutional Rights, establishing a national network of chapters to institute their Ten Point program, which called for freedom, employment, housing, education, military exemption, justice, and peace.
“I remember the first time I was at the Panther office,” says Scales. “Eldridge Cleaver came in and Bobby Seale told him ‘This is Jeffrey Scales. He’s going to take pictures of us. Eldridge said, ‘Are you related to Emmet Scales?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s my father.’ He said, ‘You still have that big house in Berkeley Hills?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re still over there.’ He said, ‘Well, are you going to have a book party for me?’ I said, ’I’ll ask my dad’ — which we ultimately did.”
The BPP not only armed its members, it empowered them with a voice that proclaimed “All Power to All the People,” a lesson Scales learned through his photographs. ““Every day something would be going on and I was trying to entrench myself to work on a newspaper, so they kind of adopted me,” says Scales, who began photographing BPP events at age 13.
A Taste of Power
Coming of age in the late 1960s at a time when liberation, anti-war, and counterculture forces transformed the American landscape, Jeffrey Henson Scales looked to Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Emory Douglas for inspiration. “As a 14-year-old, things are cool — or they’re not,” Scales succinctly observes.
“It was such an intense time. The Panthers were so exciting, and they gave me access to be a part of it. I was with the cool people, and when you’re a teenager, that’s always part of the equation. I photographed the rallies, the Huey Newton trial, the protests, the riots — it was all new but I had a head full of the history of documentary photography.”
In addition to LIFE magazine, Scales studied John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye while studying with photographer Bill Dane in high school. Scales made his debut on the national stage when he published his BPP photos in Time magazine at age 14. BPP photographer Stephen Shames took Scales under his wing, teaching him to develop film and giving him access to the darkroom. “I would follow him around a lot,” Scales says. “You can see some pictures in his book where I’m clearly standing near him. I learned a lot from him and from documentary photographer Pirkle Jones, who was also photographing the Panthers.”
All Power to All the People
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party to be the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” Under his leadership, the FBI introduced COINTELPRO (1956–1971), a counterrevolutionary program that employed illegal means to survey, infiltrate, discredit, disrupt, and “neutralize” those it deemed subversive including the BPP, the Young Lords, and the American Indian Movement.
Among those targeted were Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and James Baldwin, as well as BPP members Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Ericka Huggins, and Eldridge Cleaver. The FBI conspired with local police departments to threaten, assault, and kill dissidents until COINTELPRO was finally terminated in April 1971. But by then, the damage had been done, with countless lives devastated and destroyed.
In 1968, The Black Panther Paper published Scales’ work — a graffiti piece honoring Bobby Hutton, who was ambushed and killed by Oakland Police officers on April 6 — just two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Cleaver, who was with Hutton at the time of his death, reported the police sprayed him with bullets, hitting him 12 times as he surrendered, with his arms raised. “What they did was first-degree murder,” Cleaver told Henry Louis Gates in a Frontline interview in 2011.
Then 14, Scales took to the street and painted a tribute to Bobby Hutton on a building. “Emory Douglas, art director of the Panthers, put it on the cover of the April 6 edition of the paper. They ran it as a double-page spread inside with a little paragraph saying, ‘This painting was done by 14-year-old revolutionary artist Jeffrey Scales,’” Scales recalls. “What a long, exciting trip it’s been.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Jeffrey Henson Scales: In a Time of Panthers: The Lost Negatives is on view at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York through October 29, 2022. A Time of Panthers will be published by SPQR Editions in Spring 2022.