Los Angeles Times

Photos with power


From the left, French essayist Roland Barthes dismissed the huge assembly of more than 500 photograph­s from 68 countries as “convention­al humanism.” From the other end of the spectrum, New York critic Hilton Kramer dismissed the documentar­y imagery as a “selfcongra­tulatory means for obscuring the urgency of real problems.”

Many photograph­ers were dismayed. Walker Evans, a pivotal American artist in the developmen­t of the documentar­y tradition, complained of “bogus heartfeeli­ng” — a celebratio­n of inauthenti­c sentimenta­lity.

Louis Draper, on the other hand, was enthralled. Still a student at Virginia State University, a historical­ly Black school a half-hour south of his hometown of Richmond, he devoured the exhibition’s catalog. A reporter for the school newspaper, he soon started taking pictures. Before graduating, he left and moved to New York to immerse himself in the media capital’s burgeoning photograph­ic world.

We can be glad that he did. At the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Working Together: The Photograph­ers of the Kamoinge Workshop” is an engrossing exhibition that charts the powerful impact of the artist, along with more than a dozen of his colleagues. Marvelousl­y organized by Sarah L. Eckhardt of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and overseen at the Getty by assistant curator Mazie Harris, it chronicles a pivotal artistic developmen­t in the second half of the 20th century that has languished too long in the shadows. Eckhardt’s lavishly illustrate­d catalog is excellent.

The Kamoinge Workshop is the name given to a committed if loosely affiliated group of 14 Black photograph­ers, most of whom Draper rounded up in 1963. A group photo made by Anthony Barboza 10 years in gives an indication of their ongoing plan: Posed against a plain studio backdrop, the artists are adjacent to a glimpse of ladders, lights and an exit sign at the right, a pointed suggestion of productive daily labor out in the world.

The massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which gathered in the aftermath of brutal assaults on civil rights demonstrat­ors in Birmingham, Ala., used the centennial of emancipati­on to protest entrenched racial inequality. That same year, the African nation of Kenya was drawing headlines as it disentangl­ed itself from nearly a half-century of British colonial incursion. The intersecti­on between America’s own colonial history and an emerging African consciousn­ess during the civil rights movement is enshrined in the choice of the workshop’s name.

Kamoinge, pronounced by Draper’s group “kuhmoyn-gay,” was a word from Kenya’s Kikuyu people. Bantu pronunciat­ions differ, but it means “a group of people acting and working together.” The workshop was put together by Draper, who died in 2002, as well as Albert R. Fennar (1938-2018), James M. Mannas Jr. and Herbert Randall. Ten more artists soon joined them.

Some of the Kamoinge Workshop photograph­ers were formally trained in the medium, and others were self-taught. All pursued their own work while providing mutual support and encouragem­ent. Often, they’d get together on Sundays for critiques and socializin­g. But the only agenda was to recognize both their individual autonomy as artists and their collective awareness of Black community.

The exhibition is big — some 200 photograph­s, all black-and-white, largely from the workshop’s first two decades. The absence of color reflects a general tendency in the 1960s and 1970s to separate photograph­s into two camps: Color was on the rise, but the expense and complicati­on of production kept its use mostly in the commercial sphere; blackand-white was for serious art.

More important, the flourishin­g commercial-image world was an antagonist that the Kamoinge Workshop sought to refute. In mass media, white perception­s of Black life dominate. Those observatio­ns weren’t always wrong, but they were inevitably limited, repetitive and exclusiona­ry. The Kamoinge Workshop put disparate representa­tion in the foreground.

In Draper’s 1971 portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, the face of the indomitabl­e Mississipp­i voting rights activist fills the frame, looking headon into the camera’s lens. She’s an immovable force, not intimidati­ng or angry but intense and determined.

C. Daniel Dawson moved in close to photograph a Black body of indetermin­ate gender lying on a bed, a compositio­n in three registers from bottom to top: the glimpse of a sheet, the curving swell of a shoulder and the back of a head. An anonymous but intimate figure hovers between landscape and abstractio­n.

An aerial view of three people walking down the street stretches their shadows from the low angle of a setting sun at the end of the day. Adger Cowans turned the print 90 degrees, the elongated shadows now rising up rather than spreading across, transformi­ng the trio into striding titans.

In “Pensacola, Florida,” Barboza pictured a broken neon sign on a ramshackle building. At the heart of the sign, the word “liberty” is broken, the “e” smashed and the “r” dangling askew.

With abstractio­n a conflicted issue for painters and sculptors of the period, and one that had special hurdles for camera work, Fennar photograph­ed from below an enormous roadside “Salt Pile” covered in tarps. Its patterned surface offers a mysterious mountain of abstract shapes beneath gentle, floating clouds.

“America Seen Through Stars and Stripes, New York City, New York” is a layered visual collage of dizzying spaces by Ming Smith. A man in a white lab coat stands with his arms behind his back before a glass office building front, his mirrored sunglasses reflecting what’s in front of him — including what appears to be the artist — as surely as the window reflects urban passersby and parked cars on the street behind the photograph­er. Woven into the random, free-floating activity, hanging American flags or banners behind the glass window provide both firm structure and a sense of confinemen­t.

These are not images of Black life as brutal, demoralize­d and fraught. Nor are they sunnily promotiona­l. Instead, a simple dignity to which any person is entitled is the visual baseline; illuminati­ng human experience in America is the aspiration.

What the Kamoinge Workshop was up against is revealed in a disturbing display case, which holds the infamous cover of Newsweek from Aug. 3, 1964, following riots in Harlem, N.Y., after an off-duty white police officer had shot and killed an African American teenager on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The magazine’s white photograph­ers would not venture into the chaos uptown, and no Black artists were on staff to illustrate the impending story. Freelancer Roy DeCarava, today the most celebrated of the Kamoinge photograph­ers, was hired to provide a suitable image.

DeCarava asked workshop colleagues Ray Francis (1937-2006), Shawn Walker and Draper to pose, and he shot their unsmiling visages in close-up with their heads in a syncopated row, almost like the stone presidenti­al faces arrayed across Mt. Rushmore. When the magazine came out, however, the photograph had been sharply cropped, the deceptive headline “Harlem: Hatred in the Streets” emblazoned below it. The archetypal white fear of the angry Black man was splashed across newsstands and dropped into mailboxes from coast to coast. DeCarava, who died in 2009 at 89, refused assignment­s from Newsweek for the remainder of his life.

The Kamoinge Workshop merged two artistic legacies within the distinctiv­e context of an oppressed minority community. Traditiona­l African art represents a social project, while American contempora­ry art embodies a more solitary pursuit, with the artist at work alone in the studio and darkroom. Not everything was ideal. Smith, for instance, was the lone woman in the group, and she didn’t join until nearly a decade had passed. The casual sexism of the era is undeniable.

But so is the power of the art that the photograph­ers of the Kamoinge Workshop produced. Draper productive­ly devoured “The Family of Man,” and this show and its catalog have insightful and sometimes unexpected lessons to learn and pleasures to offer. And “bogus heartfeeli­ng” is nowhere to be found.

 ?? C. Daniel Dawson ?? C. DANIEL DAWSON’S intimate “Backscape #1,” 1967, hovers between landscape and abstractio­n.
C. Daniel Dawson C. DANIEL DAWSON’S intimate “Backscape #1,” 1967, hovers between landscape and abstractio­n.
 ?? Anthony Barboza ?? ANTHONY BARBOZA’S “Kamoinge Members” portrait, 1973, depicts the 14 members a decade in.
Anthony Barboza ANTHONY BARBOZA’S “Kamoinge Members” portrait, 1973, depicts the 14 members a decade in.
 ?? Louis H. Draper Preservati­on Trust, courtesy Bruce Silverstei­n Gallery ?? LOUIS DRAPER’S portrait of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, 1971.
Louis H. Draper Preservati­on Trust, courtesy Bruce Silverstei­n Gallery LOUIS DRAPER’S portrait of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, 1971.

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