The Unknown Radicals of Black Photography

Adger Cowans, Footsteps, 1960. (Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund / The Whitney Museum of American Art) When the Kamoinge Workshop began in 1963, taking its name from a Kikuyu word meaning “a group of people acting together,” a few Black photographers had already […]

When the Kamoinge Workshop began in 1963, taking its name from a Kikuyu word meaning “a group of people acting together,” a few Black photographers had already gained some prominence. Gordon Parks was probably chief among them. After starting as a portraitist in Chicago, he had gone on to work during the war years with the renowned photography program of the Farm Security Administration, best known for sending the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to document everyday rural life during the Depression; in postwar Harlem he went to work for Vogue as a fashion photographer before becoming a staffer at Life, the country’s most widely seen venue for photojournalism. There was also Roy DeCarava, a Harlem native, who had followed a less direct route: Having studied painting, he’d at first taken up photography as a way to gather visual stimuli for his canvases; he always used the camera with a rigorous sense for its purely artistic potential. His work had been included in the famous “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and with Langston Hughes he’d published the collaborative book The Sweet Flypaper of Life the same year. The grand old man, James Van Der Zee, the portraitist of the Harlem Renaissance, was at this time almost forgotten but on the verge of being rediscovered.

Although DeCarava was not involved in the early meetings at which plans for the Kamoinge Workshop were hatched, the young photographers who were there—among them Louis Draper, Al Fennar, Ray Francis, James M. Mannas Jr., and Herbert Randall—invited him to serve as the group’s director. He was involved for only two years, but as Sarah L. Eckhardt, the curator of the exhibition “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop,” writes in its catalog, “his willingness to mentor the Kamoinge Workshop members, who were almost all fifteen to twenty years his junior, proved important to the group’s definition of its purpose.” Which is to say, I think, that the impulse cultivated among the Kamoinge Workshop members was to explore the artistic potential of photography, seen as encompassing but not limited to its documentary uses.

Broadly speaking, art has two basic ways of making things visible: the direct and oblique, or even the sharp and the shadowy. This dichotomy is not just a question, as Eckhardt seems to think, of a tension “between the documentary and the abstract traditions in photography”; it’s not only about subject matter, but of different ways that an image can address its viewers. The direct way is to present things clearly, as sharply and distinctly defined: to give its subjects crystalline character beyond that of everyday perception and offer a chance to see more than we ever thought we could see. The oblique way is to make things harder to perceive, more indistinct, and thereby induce the viewer to look and think harder, to seek out the half-hidden visible for oneself—making the viewer cocreator of the work. Probably no artist can be entirely and exclusively attached to either of these modalities all the time, but it would not be misleading to say that, whereas Parks was drawn more to direct visibility, to crispness and clarity, DeCarava upheld the way of shadow and blur: perception through a glass (lens) darkly, to put a biblical spin on it. And to a great extent, the Kamoinge photographers followed him on this path. See, for instance, Anthony Barboza’s Self-Portrait, NYC, circa 1978: You’ll never know what he looks like from this self-portrait, in which he appears as nothing more than a shadow cast across two different planes, one very close, one far off.

With one sort-of exception, none of the work DeCarava made during his years with the workshop is included in “Working Together,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 28. (The exhibition originated at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, Va., and will travel later this year to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., followed next year by the Cincinnati Art Museum.) That absence is regrettable for the simple reason that any occasion to see DeCarava’s intimate, allusive work is welcome, but it was probably a wise curatorial choice insofar as it accords the spotlight to a younger cohort of photographers who should be better known. Although the Kamoinge Workshop still exists today, the exhibition focuses on 14 artists who were members during its first decades: in addition to Barboza, Draper, Fennar, Francis, and Randall, it includes Adger Cowans, C. Daniel Dawson, Herman Howard, Herb Robinson, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith (the sole woman in the group), Shawn Walker, and Calvin Wilson. They’re represented by work made between 1959 (from before the founding of the group) and 1979. Although the exhibition’s subtitle puts an emphasis on Draper as a central figure, that’s borne out more by the catalog, where his significance as the thinker and writer who articulated the group’s ideals (and whose archives, now held by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, became the seed for the exhibition) becomes more clear, than on the museum walls, where he is one among many talented equals. All have something to contribute.

Robert G. Mull

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