The Unknown Radicals of Black Photography

The Unknown Radicals of Black Photography

The Unknown Radicals of Black Photography

A recent exhibition on the Kamoinge Workshop tells the story of a group of photographers who explored the artistic and political potential of the medium to its fullest.


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.

By the way, if those names don’t ring a bell, it’s not surprising; these photographers haven’t been accorded this kind of major-museum attention until now. I’ll admit the only ones I knew anything about going into the show were Barboza, Draper, and Smith, and what I knew I learned only in the last few years, having first seen Smith’s work in any quantity, for instance, only because the filmmaker Arthur Jafa included it in his own exhibition “A Series of Utterly Improbably, Yet Extraordinary Renditions,” which I saw in Berlin in 2018. But now there’s no unseeing this work. The show is full of things that linger in the memory. It fulfills my cardinal rule for group shows: They succeed when they make you want to see more work by each artist than a group show can accommodate.

As for that sort-of exception—the one work DeCarava made with Kamoinge—it shows what Black photographers were up against in trying to make their way into the white-dominated spaces of the profession. It’s not on the wall, and it’s not exactly a photograph, but rather a photomechanical reproduction: the cover of the August 3, 1964, issue of Newsweek, shown in a vitrine. Above the strapline “Harlem: Hatred in the Streets”—a story about the riots that had occurred the previous month, triggered by the killing of an African American teenager by an off-duty cop—it shows a close-up of three young Black men with grim faces. DeCarava had been hired to shoot the scene, as Draper later recalled, because the situation was so inflamed that white photographers were afraid to travel up to Harlem. Instead of going out in the street to find enraged rioters, DeCarava asked his Kamoinge protégés Draper, Francis, and Walker to pose. “He asked us to look angry for him,” Draper later said. “We were having a ball. It was a hot, muggy day and we were kidding around until the white art director chided, ‘You boys don’t look angry enough.’ We got pissed and Roy got his picture.” According to the text panel in the vitrine, DeCarava had demanded from his Newsweek editors a commitment that “they would not manipulate or place racialized, inflammatory text over the image.” Instead, “the editors published a cropped, colorized image overlaid with their own text.” That was the last time DeCarava worked for Newsweek, and the text panel further suggests that the incident fed into his distancing from the Kamoinge Workshop.

“It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject,” DeCarava once said. His remark resonates with a famous maxim of Paul Klee’s that Draper cited as an illumination that helped him clarify his own path: “Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible.” Taking that picture for Newsweek was a job, not art, but even so, DeCarava had not expected his perceptions to be abused so blatantly. Still, the magazine cover is useful as a foil for the rest of the “Working Together” exhibition, clarifying just how radical it was for the members of the Kamoinge Workshop to take into their own hands the form and meaning of their own work, and to do so collectively—not as out-of-place individuals, as had been the case with their immediate predecessors like DeCarava and Parks. This is beautifully illustrated by the Kamoinge Artists’ Book, put together by one of the members, Anthony Barboza, in 1972. He made close-up portraits of each of the 14 members at the time (including a self-portrait) and asked each colleague to make 14 prints of a work of their own by which they wanted to be represented. He then compiled these into accordion-bound books with every member’s portrait facing his or her work, presenting one copy to each contributor—a document of their solidarity that also embodies the individuality of each artist. The portraits are direct and intimate; they conjure the quiddity of each person’s presence, and that presence seems to illuminate the perception that animates each facing image, whatever it may be that it makes visible. Far from “hatred in the streets,” this was tenderness, determination, and generosity of spirit in operation.

Part of the pleasure of seeing “Working Together” at the Whitney comes from how thoughtfully the show has been installed. None of the obvious strategies have been followed—it’s neither an artist-by-artist sequence of individual presentations nor a chronological run-through. Thematic connections are drawn, but loosely, subtly, so that the accent is not on the category but on quieter connections among the images, commonalities in their overtones or undertones more than in anything you can easily put your finger on—another way of asking viewers to look more carefully, not to pigeonhole the pictures but to find their inner accords and dissonances. And when the images are grouped in more straightforward ways, there’s usually a good reason for it: A section of findings from the artists’ travels (Cuba, Jamaica, Senegal) opens another window onto what, one then realizes, is otherwise a pretty New York–centric show; that recognition in turn serves as a reminder that these were not the photographers who were getting plumb assignments from Life to go find out for America what the world looks like, or getting those great Guggenheim grants that would have enabled them to take off and wander at large for a year exploring. That could only have happened in some alternative reality, unfortunately.

While the images from abroad present a counterpoint to the show as a whole, another thematic cluster goes to the very heart of the Kamoinge aesthetic. I’m talking about a set of photographs of musicians in performance—precisely what DeCarava excelled at, by the way. It’s not surprising to learn that, in Walker’s recollection of the early days of Kamoinge, “pretty much all of us were jazz fanatics”; more than a fan, Smith married the musician David Murray, a founder of the World Saxophone Quartet. Her 1978 photograph of Sun Ra in front of his band is as wild as the man’s planet-hopping myth and music. Ra’s Arkestra stands far in the background, as though the palpable electricity he seems to generate—he’s throwing off dense clouds of sparks that I guess are really a shiny cape swirling around and captured with a long exposure—might be dangerous. Those coruscations look like they could set things aflame. The whole scene has a kind of subtle swing to it, thanks to the slightly off-balance angle from which it was shot. This boat is rocking. And yet Ra himself, looking deadly earnest, is the very figure of aplomb, the unmoved mover.

Very different but just as forceful is Robinson’s 1969 image of Mahalia Jackson in an outdoor concert. He doesn’t show her face. The picture is taken from behind her, and captures an almost geometrical pattern of blackest blacks and whitest whites, with a few gray tones in between—mainly in her dress, itself white but with its folds and other details creating areas of shadow. She carries herself with a bit of a sway. It’s the one thing that suggests the pulse of the music, and that’s all that’s needed. The stage floor and a wall that occupies most of the right side of the frame are white. On the right we can also see part of the black grand piano on which she leans one hand and, in the distance against the wall, past the underside of the piano, a man in a dark suit; his head is blocked from view by the instrument, but we can see him putting his hands together. On the left, the backlit trees form another large zone of blackness, which also encompasses the singer’s head. In front of them stands a man in a bright white suit, looking intently at the singer. He, too, puts his hands together. The two men in the distance (a black form against a white field, a white form against a black field) are tiny in comparison to the monumental figure of the performer in the foreground, but the picture’s subject is as much the seriousness with which that faraway face—the only one in the frame—contemplates the singer’s offering as it is the artistic power and nobility of her gift.

The impulse to present things indirectly is recurrent here. One might expect a photograph titled Malcolm Speaks to show how the electrifying orator works his spell on the crowd, but in Cowans’s work, dated circa1960–65, we can barely see him. The scene has been shot from very high up, presumably from a high-rise building’s roof or balcony. Everyone is tiny. So small is the central figure that, as John Edwin Mason remarks in the catalog, “we have to take Cowans at his word that the male figure standing alone on a raised stage…is the Muslim leader.” What one witnesses, rather than the speaker himself, is the draw he exerts: It’s as if people were being drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet. The time of day must have been late afternoon. Wherever there are breaks in the crowd, one sees long shadows—twice as long as the people who cast them are tall. Finally it is this pattern of raking light, more than anything else, that inscribes the image in memory.

Cowans seems to have been particularly drawn to such shadows, glimpsed from a height and a distance. One of his pictures here is even called, simply, Shadows. Taken in 1966, it shows three figures making their way down a city sidewalk, walking into their own titanic silhouettes. But still more touching is a very early work of his, Footsteps, from 1960: On a snow-covered street with cars buried under all the whiteness, a man, dressed in black and wearing a black hat, trudges down the middle of the road, where the snow seems a bit thinner. His head is bowed down as if he’s walking against a strong wind. No shadow this time. It must be close to midday. Maybe it’s too facile to say: a lonely Black man in a white world. In any case, what this picture makes incredibly important is that this man was seen—in the most emphatic sense of the word. He never knew he was seen, but someone looked out the window and saw his struggle, knew it to be important, and made it visible.

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