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‘Raymond Cooper’s Oakland’ Tells Everyday Stories of a Bygone Era

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A couple is viewed from behind, while sitting on the grass in a park. Both of them have afro hairstyles, one that resembles a heart.
A moment from ‘Raymond Cooper’s Oakland.’ (Courtesy of the East Bay Photo Collective)

When we look back on history, all too often we stay focused on the big events — the disasters, the elections, the assassinations. But when it comes to getting an accurate view of a bygone era, it’s almost always the footage of everyday occurrences that tells us the most.

Raymond Cooper’s Oakland, a photography collection currently on display at the Oakland Photo Workshop, does just that. In Cooper’s images, we see snapshots of lives and characters, places and social events that vividly take us back to the streets and living rooms of 1970s Oakland. Two young men hanging on a street corner. Children posing with a parked Chrysler Sunbeam. A woman with a beautiful Afro smoking a cigarette on her porch. A Black cowboy riding through a parade.

Two children sit on the floor of a comfortable living room. They are surrounded by green plants, a white lamp behind them.
Intimate family portraits are a high point of ‘Raymond Cooper’s Oakland.’ (Rae Alexandra)

The images feel warm, familiar and intimate. They might not be of your friends and family, but they’ll make you think of the people who are. And their ability to take us to the least documented corners of the Town of 50 years ago is what makes them just a little bit magical.

The pictures on display represent an eclectic hodgepodge of Cooper’s two decades working as a photographer. (He also owned Sundance, a camera supply store on Webster Street.) In addition to Cooper’s street and home photography, there are some distinctly ’70s works of futuristic collage, a collection of fashion portraiture and some behind-the-scenes snaps, often involving hair stylists.

A young white man wearing short shorts and knee high tube socks plays an arcade game.
Little is known about most of the locations and subjects of Cooper’s photos, but they distinctly reflect the era in which they were taken. (Courtesy of the East Bay Photo Collective/ Aja Cooper)

The story of how Cooper’s photography got this little renaissance is a delightful one. In 2021, a skateboarder named Ben Tolford rescued several binders of slides that had been dumped next to a trashcan in Oakland. While studying them at home, he found a self-portrait of Cooper that had the photographer’s name on it. He also found a baby picture with the name Aja on it. Tolford used social media to locate her — Aja is Cooper’s daughter — and returned the slides, which had been stolen from her storage space. Many more of Cooper’s photos had previously been lost in a house fire.

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What’s left of Cooper’s portfolio tells a colorful story about trends, community and belonging. It provides contemporary audiences with an on-the-ground view of everyday Oakland life half a century ago. And it brings back vivid memories for those who lived through it.

A slightly damaged photograph of a Black man on the phone inside a small business. He is waving to the photographer.
Raymond Cooper working at his downtown Oakland photography supply store, Sundance. (Courtesy of the East Bay Photo Collective)

At the exhibit’s opening party, an image featuring the downtown Oakland Doggie Diner prompted one man next to me to reminisce about the restaurant’s former proximity to a furniture store that sold, in his words, “the wildest furniture” and “you know, all that leopard print and shag.” Thanks to Raymond Cooper, that’s not so difficult to picture.

‘Raymond Cooper’s Oakland’ is on display at the Oakland Photo Workshop (312 8th Street) through April 21, 2024. Aja Cooper will appear in conversation with ‘East Bay Yesterday’ host Liam O’Donoghue on April 5 at 7 p.m.

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