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In January 2024, conservation treatment began on two film posters from UCLA Library's “George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977(opens in a new tab),” assembled while Johnson worked as a writer, producer and distributor for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916-1923). The effort to uncover the history and significance of the posters, corresponding film and its makers winds a path to the very origins of the motion picture industry.


The Lincoln Motion Picture Co. was founded in 1915 by brothers Noble Johnson and George Perry Johnson as America’s first producer of “race movies”—films specifically made for Black audiences and starring Black casts. In an era characterized by blackface vaudeville and racist slapstick, the Lincoln Company showcased the talent of Black artists and technicians through storytelling which portrayed the Black American middle class on-screen for the first time. The Lincoln Company’s films were largely only viewable in racially-segregated theaters, despite the company’s desire to promote their message to a larger audience. The entirely Black-owned and -operated company produced only five films before ceasing operation in 1923, but as a forerunner in its treatment of minority artists, its influence on the film industry was significant.

Staff of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Los Angeles, circa 1921, , Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection(opens in a new tab)
Staff of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Los Angeles, circa 1921

“By Right of Birth” was Lincoln’s final project, released in 1921 as a response to the D.W. Griffith’s highly controversial 1915 Civil War film “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic upholders of white supremacy in the United States. At the time of its release, “By Right of Birth” was commended for its positive portrayal of both Black and Native American characters, especially compared with other films of the era. Tragically, while the original work included six reels (6,000 feet) of film, only a handful of scenes, totaling 4 minutes and 11 seconds of footage(opens in a new tab), survive today.

Noble Johnson and Harry Gant [photograph], George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection(opens in a new tab)
Photograph of Lincoln founder and president Noble Johnson and the director of "By Right of Birth," Harry Gant, who was the only white person employed by the company during its operation.

When the Lincoln Company ceased operation in 1923, it would be another four years before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established in 1927, and another two years before the first Academy Awards were presented (in-person and without radio or television broadcast) in 1929. George Johnson continued writing and established the Pacific Coast News Bureau in 1923, while Noble Johnson remained in Hollywood, acting in more than 130 films between 1916 and 1950, including the 1932 adaptation of Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” Buster Keaton’s 1924 comedy “The Navigator,” and the widely-acclaimed 1933 adaptation of “King Kong,” considered one of the greatest films of all time.


Two copies of the “By Right of Birth” film poster, showing the tears, crumpling and curling requiring conservation treatment.

Treatment began on two copies of the “By Right of Birth” poster in January 2024 in UCLA Library’s Preservation and Conservation department, situated on the ground floor of Powell Library. The posters are printed via chromolithography in 5 colors (yellow, red, blue, brown and black) on off-white, machine-made paper and show two men fighting in an office setting with a woman and a typewriter behind them. Promotional text in the top left corner of the image reads “It’s a LINCOLN PRODUCTION”. A 3” margin of unprinted space is present on the top, right, and left edges of the posters, plus a ½” bottom margin which is unprinted except for identification information “BY RIGHT OF BIRTH . 3 SHT TOP 10096”. “Three-sheet” is a standard size for large film posters which were historically made up of two to three individual sheets and needed to be aligned during presentation outside of theaters and subway stations; “10096” might refer to a Manhattan area code where the posters were meant to be displayed.

When the posters were retrieved from off-site storage for treatment, both were heavily torn, creased and curled from years of folded and rolled storage. Both posters show evidence of previous interventions with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape, and one of the copies has strips of a 20th-century block-printed wallpaper adhered to the reverse to reinforce tears. The two posters were stored together, loosely rolled around a single tube support. While the sandwiching layers of archival paper and mylar (a transparent polyethylene film) made handling slightly more manageable, they were still far from an accessible state.


The first step in any intensive conservation treatment is written and photographic documentation of the objects in their untreated state, which proved especially challenging for these oversized posters. When the standard hardware proved insufficient, Conservation staff prepared an ad hoc photo station on the workroom floor to capture the full scale of the posters.

Mitchel Gundrum photographing poster

After documentation, the less heavily damaged of the two posters was cleared of surface grime with soft cosmetic sponges, at which point the tedious process of humidification, flattening and mending the torn and crumpled portions of the sheet began.

Conservator Mitchel Gundrum works from the front and back of the poster to re-align damaged areas.
Conservator Mitchel Gundrum works from the front and back of the poster to re-align damaged areas.

A variety of spatulas, tweezers and other implements are used to unfold crumpled edges, soften creases and reorient fragments of the poster to rebuild the image. Working from the blank reverse side of the poster, great care is taken to ensure that the printed elements on either side of a tear line up accurately before mending with a strong, lightweight Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The full poster is approached from multiple angles as the largest creases and running tears are relaxed and stabilized inch by inch. The ideal mend matches the strength, flexibility and tone of the poster paper, allowing it to move as a single, continuous sheet of paper without glaring obstructions.

Mending process

Detail of mending process, showing local humidification and flattening of crumpled areas under small glass weights.

As of April 2024, one of the posters has been fully conserved after approximately 8 weeks of on-and-off treatment. Treatment has already started on the second poster, after which the pair will be returned to UCLA Library Special Collections to be housed with the rest of the Johnson collection. Several items from the collection were recently featured in the Academy Museum’s 2022 exhibition “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971,” including posters for two other Lincoln films, “The Sport of the Gods” (1921) and “The Trooper of Troop K” (1917), which are viewable in UCLA Library Digital Collections. At the time of the exhibition, the “By Right of Birth” posters were too fragile to loan out—their present treatment, then, is all the more important as the film industry looks back on its own history through a critical lens and turns to institutions like UCLA Library to evidence its origins.


Watch: Behind the scenes conserving rare film posters with Mitchel Gundrum

Kress Fellow Mitchel Gundrum explains the process of conserving two posters for the film "By Right of Birth"

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