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Black Photographers From Kamoinge Workshop Gain Recognition By Major Museums, Library of Congress

Shawn Walker of the Kamoinge Workshop stands before the 1973 portrait of the group at the VMFA's exhibition.
Shawn Walker of the Kamoinge Workshop stands before the 1973 group portrait by fellow collective member Anthony Barboza that's included in the VMFA exhibition: “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop.” Walker's position in the group photo is the second row, far right. (Photo: Catherine Komp/VPM News)

Louis Draper grew up on the East End of Richmond and Henrico County and majored in journalism and history at Virginia State University. His father Hansel was a postal carrier and an amateur photographer. When he learned Louis was working for the school newspaper, he sent his camera to Petersburg.

Then something mysterious happened that would shape Draper for decades to come. Someone left a copy of “The Family of Man,” a 1955 catalogue of photographs from an exhibit by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art with a theme of showing how people were connected across borders and cultures. 

“I read it practically all night,” Draper said in a 2001 interview. “Instead of studying for my exam, I read The Family of Man. I was just enthralled by that book.”

Draper would leave the racism and segregation of Virginia and head to New York in 1957. There he developed his craft and eventually co-founded the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers who came together to support and mentor each other at a time when the white-dominated art establishment shut them out.

“Bottom line, what we were trying to do is show a positive voice of our community,” Kamoinge member Shawn Walker told VPM. “That's what Kamoinge was about, that's why we formed. There was always somebody else telling our story and we wanted to tell our story.”

The VMFA’s exhibit “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” includes nearly 200 images by 15 early members of the collective. The exhibition took years of planning and conservation, after Nell Draper-Winston donated more than 50,000 photographs, negatives and other materials from her brother Louis’s collection. 

A common theme in the black and white street images is the “decisive moment,” that fraction of a second in someone’s life that, when captured on film, pulls you in and holds your eye. At the exhibition preview, Walker pointed to one of his images that demonstrates this concept: two men on a front stoop, their dark and light clothes contrasting, both wearing hats, each has a hand on the hip and only one is looking at the camera.

“They could turn at any moment, facing any different direction,” said Walker.

The term “decisive moment” is linked to the renowned French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who visited the Kamoinge group in Harlem.

“He was important and he thought we were important. That's why he came to the gallery,” said Walker.

In the Kenyan language of Gikuyu, Kamoinge means “a group of people acting and working together.” Walker says it was like studying at the Sorbonne. They examined painting, literature and philosophy and applied what they learned to their photography.

“I understood from the beginning, from the first time I got into the group that I was trying to create art,” said Walker. “We recognize ourselves as an art group, not as a journalist group.”

The exhibition is curated by the VMFA’s Sarah Eckhardt, who worked with Nell Draper-Winston to acquire and conserve Louis Draper’s collection. Eckhardt then tracked down other members of the Kamoinge Workshop, resulting in a comprehensive exhibition of images, portfolios and oral histories. 

“Any history of photography about the 1960s and ‘70s in the United States of America would not be complete if it did not have the Kamoinge workshop,” said Eckhardt at the exhibition preview.

Seven Kamoinge photographers came to Richmond for the exhibition opening, including co-founder Adger Cowans, who got a box camera when he was about nine years old. His first shot: his mother licking a bucket of ice cream.

After studying photography at Ohio University, Adger Cowans found his way to New York and worked with the celebrated Black photographer Gordon Parks at Life Magazine. 

“[Parks was a mentor] in the sense of life but not in the sense of photography,” Cowans told VPM. “Because I had a degree when I came, in fact I showed Gordon some new techniques that he was not aware of.”

One of those techniques was double exposed color. Cowans’ photograph of Louis Armstrong on the 1961 cover of Theater Magazine was the spark that initially connected him with other artists seeking mentorship.

“We challenge each other, we gave, you know, critique to each other's work,” said Kamoinge member Beuford Smith.

Smith was self-taught, and developed a dark printing style. One of his images in the VMFA exhibition shows the silhouettes of two stand up bass players illuminated from behind by sheer, draping fabric. Smith says the artists pushed each other to be better, and developed a close bond that continues six decades later.

“We became a family and we still a family, but we argue with each other like most families do, but it's still a family,” said Smith.

The exhibition includes a range of street photography with striking contrast and composition, depth and dimension: a family on Easter, a solitary man walking through the snow, a youth chalking the alphabet on the street. It includes Draper’s iconic portraits of Black youth and Fannie Lou Hamer, Ming Smith’s images of Sun Ra and photography from the artists’ trips abroad to Cuba, Guyana and Senegal. 

“This exhibit is reminding me of coming into my blackness,” said Hampton resident Linda Holmes. “But coming into my blackness with a sense of joy, with a sense of collectivity.”

Holmes points out that it matters who’s behind the lens. Where a white photographer might see poverty, a person of color might see community.

“When you look at these pictures, you're seeing so much more complexity, you're seeing depth, you're seeing the art,” said Holmes.

The VMFA exhibit will travel to the Whitney Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Cincinnati Art Museum. For the Kamoinge artists who are still alive, like Adger Cowans, it’s a long-awaited recognition. 

“You know, if it happened when I was 45, it would have been fantastic,” said Cowans. “But still, it's great that we're being honored in this way, which I think puts us right at the center of the history of American photography and that's what's important.”

And that recognition continues to grow. Last week, the Library of Congress announced it purchased nearly 100,000 photographs from Shawn Walker’s collection including 2,500 items by Kamoinge Workshop artists.

"A lifetime resident of Harlem, I have tried to document the world around me, particularly the African American community, especially in Harlem, from an honest perspective so that our history is not lost,” Walker said in a statement. “I am pleased that both my own photographic artwork and also some of the materials I have collected in my role as a cultural anthropologist will have a permanent home in an institution that will make them available to the public. I am so satisfied that this work has found a home in such a prestigious institution and can finally be shared with the world."

The VMFA exhibit “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” will be on display through June 14, 2020. On March 20th and 21st, a group of Kamoinge photographers will return to Richmond for a two-day symposium hosted by the museum and VCU School of the Arts. 

We should disclose the VMFA and VCU School of the Arts are sponsors of VPM.


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