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“There was a lotta negativity because there was just pictures of Black people. That was one of the critiques, that we just photographed Black people. Said, ‘Yeah. You photograph just white people.’ That was the argument.”
In New York City in 1963, a group of Black photographers came together, naming themselves the Kamoinge Workshop. Translated from the Kikuyu language, kamoinge means a group of people acting together. The artists indeed worked closely together, focusing on reflecting Black life through photographs and increasing Black representation in professional organizations like the American Society of Magazine Photographers (now American Society of Media Photographers). The exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop showcases members’ work from the 1960s and ’70s.
In this episode, artist Adger Cowans and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) curator Sarah Eckhardt discusses Kamoinge’s history and future as well as the exhibition Working Together. The exhibition is organized by the VFMA and is on view at the Getty Center through October 9, 2022.
Exhibition and community programming generously supported by Megan and Peter Chernin, with additional support from Alan N. Berro; Willard Huyck and Teleia Montgomery; Vicki Reynolds Pepper and Murray Pepper; and an anonymous donor.
More to explore:
Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop explore the exhibition
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ADGER COWANS: There was a lotta negativity because there was just pictures of Black people. That was one of the critiques, that we just photographed Black people. Said, “Yeah. You photograph just white people.” That was the argument.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with artist Adger Cowans and curator Sarah Eckhardt about the exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop
In 1963, a collective of Black photographers came together in New York City and named themselves the Kamoinge Workshop. The exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop is the first major show on this group and showcases a broad range of their work from the 1960s and 1970s.
Members of the Kamoinge Workshop produced powerful images registering Black life in the mid-20th century. The exhibition explores and celebrates the group’s collective ethos, commitment to community, and centering of Black experiences.
In this episode I speak with Adger Cowans, one of the original members of the Kamoinge Workshop, and Sarah Eckhardt, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, about the range of work that comprises the Kamoinge Workshop. We met in the exhibition galleries.
Thank you, Sarah and Adger, for speaking with me on this podcast episode. Adger, tell us about the workshop, how it got its start and its name, and your history with it.
ADGER COWANS: It got started in Harlem. There was a group of photographers, which Ray Frances was starting up. He worked in the camera store on 125th Street, and I met him going in there now and then. And one day he called me; he said, “Look at this.” And he had a magazine that I had done a cover for, Theater magazine.
He said “I didn’t know you were a professional.” I said, “Yeah.” So he said, “Well, we got this group, man. Could you come up and talk with us?” And so they started meeting on Sundays at his house. His wife would make chili and we’d have chili and wine and talk about everything. And that’s kinda how it got started.
And then more guys started coming because they were learning about photography. You know, a lot of ’em were amateurs, in the sense that it wasn’t a job. I mean, I was a professional. I made my living taking pictures.
And then more guys came and they said, “Well, we don’t wanna use the name, you know, Gallery 32. We wanna have a name that defines us as Black people.” So Al had found this book about the Kikuyu, and so we adopted the word Kamoinge, which meant a group working together. So we took a vote on it. And Ray voted against it and I voted against it. We said “Why don’t we keep this Camera [inaudible]? If we let people know that we’re Black, maybe that’s not a good thing.”
And it wasn’t at that time. If they knew that you were a Black group, immediately were discarded. But we finally voted on it and we came up with that name, and that’s kinda how it got started.
After about two years of meeting, going back and forth, Lou Draper said, “We better start writing stuff down because we have a history here, and if we die or— You know, nobody’ll know about us, ’cause we just meeting and talking.” So he started writing notes and minutes. And that became the Kamoinge starting, historically of Kamoinge. And that was 1963.
CUNO: How large was the workshop, how many artists?
COWANS: Oh, we had about six or seven who were actually founding members, who had been coming over the two years, every day
CUNO: Now Sarah, what about the Kamoinge group and its relationship to other similar groups?
ECKHARDT: You know, I think that there were, later, more connections. I don’t know of a lot of connections in the early 1960s between other groups, because in part, the photography world was so separated from the rest of the art world, because this was a moment when photography was not being considered fine art, except for a few places like the Museum of Modern Art, which is a place, actually, where the early group—
So there were— there were two early groups that formed Kamoinge. So there was the group that Adger’s been talking about with Ray Frances. And Ray Frances worked in a camera shop and had a whole group of group of friends that he was connecting. And then Herb Randall had met Louis Draper through a class they’d each taken from a photographer named Harold Feinstein. In all— this is all happening down in the Greenwich Village area, Lower East Side. Completely separate from what was happening up in Harlem. And so they met through this class, and then Herb Randall was working at a film processing center with Al Fennar and Jimmy Mannas. And so they had formed their own friendship and their own kind of circle, where they were supporting one another.
Herb Randall remembers really clearly, introducing Louis Draper to Al Fennar in 1962 at the Robert Frank and Harry Callahan exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which I think is such a beautiful moment to imagine because street photography and abstraction were always so much a part of the conversation in Kamoinge. And so you have that sense, though, of the rarity of spaces and places to go to see fine art photography.
So I think that what the group was doing was really, at that moment in the early sixties, separate from some of the other groups that would form by the late 1960s. And so I think their alliances grew later in the sixties and in the early seventies. But at that early moment, they were really doing something very unique.
CUNO: How political was the workshop and was it political from the beginning, say from the March on Washington in the summer of ’63?
COWANS: No. Not really. We were concerned about making good photographs, first of all, and representing our people in a positive way, because there were so many negative images of African American people at that time. So that was one of our first goals, was to make good photographs and to do pictures of our people in a positive way, showing, you know, the love between us.
I worked for SNCC at one point, where I went down South. I was there about two or three days after Medgar Evers was killed, and I shot a bunch’a stuff. Herb Randall had been to Mississippi, too. I think he and I were the only people that had gone down to Mississippi at that time. It was a hotbed; there was a lot going on there.
CUNO: Sarah, how did the Museum of Fine Arts Virginia get associated with this workshop?
SARAH ECKHARDT: Sure. So Louis Draper was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, and his sister, Nell Draper-Winston simply brought his photographs to me in 2012, a suitcase of photographs to show me. And I looked at them and I was just knocked over. I thought they were stunning photographs, wanted to learn more. And so at the time, she wasn’t sure what to do with his archive and it was being stored at the University of Virginia’s library, but they didn’t own them; they were just temporarily there.
And so she ended up getting a gallery in Richmond, Candela Gallery, that represented her. And there, I could sit and read Louis Draper’s histories that he had written and go through his notes from Kamoinge meeting minutes in 19— starting in 1963. And I was just absolutely captivated by the story; thought it was incredibly important and needed to be told. And you know, my institution was very supportive of the idea of doing an exhibition. So I started calling the artists—Adger and Tony Barboza and Beuford Smith—and quickly developed relationships, and we went from there.
CUNO: What was the workshop’s connection with the American Society of Magazine Photographers?
ECKHARDT: So my understanding of the group—and of course, I was not there, but from reading the meeting minutes; and from talking with some of the founding members, especially Herb Randall, and then Shawn Walker also, who joined early; and then from Lou’s notes—was that after they formed, Roy DeCarava was a member of the ASMP. And they asked Roy to become their director.
So he had not been a founding member, but they specifically, out of honor for his work and just out of respect for him, asked if he would be their director. And so he invited them to an ASMP meeting where he was involved, because they were really concerned about increasing representation of Black photographers. So there had been this emphasis in 1963 in increasing representation of the Civil Rights.
And it was Roy DeCarava who was pointed out we should also be increasing the representation of Black photographers in ASMP. And that became a point of tension for the group and, from the meeting minutes, a real formative moment, when they decided, if we aren’t going to have representation through groups like ASMP, then it’s up to us to represent ourselves. And so while they had been meeting, that was, from my understanding and from kinda reading along in the minutes, that was when they came up with their mission, in 1964, after being really frustrated by those meetings.
COWANS: I had done a cover for ASMP. And Roy was a member. I wasn’t a member, but they put my photograph Icarus on the cover. And Roy and I talked about, “Well, we really need more representation.” I tried to join ASMP and they didn’t take me on. But they used that photograph, through my agent. I had an agent. And they didn’t know I was Black; they just liked the photograph.
And when she showed it to ’em, I think if they had known I was Black, they may not have used the image, because there were no African Americans, or Negros or Black people, in that organization. So Roy became a member and he decided that we should go down and have a meeting with the ASMP—some of the people at New York Magazine and other people who published books and magazines. So there was a meeting and we all came together. And Gordon Parks was there, too, because he felt, you know, we should have more representation.
Well, the meeting got very heated, when somebody said, “Well, you don’t hire any Black people or show any Black people’s works.” And then I forget, the guy from the New York Times said, “Well, we hired Gordon Parks to do such and such and such.” And then Roy said, “Well, that’s just one photographer.” And it went into a back and forth.
And then Roy got really heated. And some people sided with Roy; some people sided with Gordon that yes, they had done something and they were going to hire more African American people. But I think that meeting kinda blew up and that was it. Nothing ever happened.
CUNO: What was the American Society of Magazine Photographers? What was its origins and purpose?
COWANS: To represent the works of photographers who worked in the magazine business and in the advertising business. American Society of Magazine Photographers; that’s its original title. Then it became American Society of Media Photographers. They changed the name.
CUNO: What about the James Van Der Zee Institute? What was that?
COWANS: James Van Der Zee was not know until they did the Harlem on My Mind show. They had a lot of his photographs. And so he became famous at that point because a lot of the photographs of his were in the show.
CUNO: That was the exhibition in 1969, Harlem on My Mind, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
COWANS: Yes. He was a local photographer, and there were several along that strip. But then he formed an institution and a gallery, the James Van Der Zee Institute. And I think I had a second show there. It was on Park Avenue and 125th Street, that building on the northeast corner. But James Van Der Zee became famous after that exhibition.
CUNO: What was its relationship with the Kamoinge Workshop?
COWANS: Van Der Zee?
COWANS: There was no relationship with Van Der Zee, other than we formed another group. And what we did is we honored our ancestor photographers, older photographers. Roy, we did Roy; we did Van Der Zee; we did Polk; we did what’s his name? Jazz photographer. Chuck Stewart.
ECKHARDT: I would say, though, that a few of the photographers, especially Tony Barboza, actually ended up becoming assistants, working closing with Van Der Zee. So Tony Barboza helped Van Der Zee make prints. And then Danny Dawson also worked closely with him.
By the early seventies, they were working closely with him. And then when Beuford Smith founded the Black Photographers Annual, he was one of the first photographers that they wanted to honor, of the older generation. So throughout the 70s, I would say that maybe not Kamoinge officially, but a number of the Kamoinge artists developed relationships with artists like James Van Der Zee. And also, P.H. Polk was another artist from the South, from Tuskegee, that they were interested in honoring and also helping to preserve their work.
CUNO: Now, the Kamoinge Workshop was an exhibiting workshop, right? And so how did you decided which photographs to exhibit?
COWANS: Well, we weren’t exhibiting in the beginning. Nobody was exhibiting. They didn’t have enough work to exhibit. And then Roy came in, and Roy decided we should get a place to show work. And then we got this place on, I think, 143rd Street. And we had that gallery for a little while. That was the first show of everybody. You know, there had been some publications, little things here and there, but that was the first time we had a gallery that we showed our work in.
CUNO: How did you decide which photographs to show?
COWANS: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t remember, but people showed whatever they were doing at that time. But we— They showed— Place wasn’t that big. Maybe we showed, you know, twenty-five, thirty photographs.
CUNO: Well, soon enough, the workshop decided to release and exhibit its photographs in portfolios. How did that decision was made?
COWANS: Well, we decided well, nobody’s showing our work; what are we gonna do? And then Beuford decided a portfolio wasn’t good enough; we need a book. And then he and whatshisname put all that together, and we had the first actual Black Photographers Annual.
CUNO: Well, the second portfolio of the workshop included a poem by Louie Draper.
CUNO: Tell us about Louis Draper and about the role that Langston played in the group.
COWANS: Well, he lived in the house with Langston Hughes. So he was very close with him. And I think that some’a that poetry thing rubbed off on Louis. I think that Langston Hughes was important to us because of Roy, because Roy had gotten this book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, and he did it with Langston Hughes.
So I think that Lou was down, didn’t have a place to live, and then he invited [him] to live there. So through that, we had an association with Langston Hughes, through Roy.
ECKHARDT: One thing I would point out about Kamoinge’s global influence, or global perspective, really, from the very beginning, is that after Lou studied with Eugene Smith on the Lower East Side, he moved up and lived in Langston Hughes’ building, as Adger mentioned.
And that was really key to his understanding of a lot of things, because Langston Hughes was such a mentor to Louis Draper. And one of the things that Louis Draper specifically recalled was how incredibly international the scene was at Langston Hughes’s home, because he had dignitaries passing in and out all the time. And so Louis Draper ended up having access and would meet these people.
And this was the early 1960s, so it was the midst of the sweeping independence movement in Africa, and Langston Hughes was very connected to what was happening. And so the naming of the group, Kamoinge, in 1963, I think it really came out of this conversation. This is one of the reasons why Al Fennar and Louis Draper were reading Jomo Kenyatta’s book and thinking about what the US Civil Rights Movement meant in the context of a much more global independence moment.
And so I think that is one of the ways, in addition to the poetry that Louis Draper was writing, I think that he gained this global perspective from living in Langston Hughes’ building and really being mentored by him.
CUNO: Now, someone said something in a video that I saw, about the negative representation of the group in the press. Did I misunderstand that?
COWANS: Oh, yeah. There was a lotta negativity, you know, because first of all, it was like, well, why a Black group? You know? That was really a big deal. Not only in the media, but with everybody. Well, you know, “What are you guys doing?” You know? “What is this? Why form a Black group?” You know, “you’re being anti— You’re racist.” It’s funny things that people said.
But I think that because we bonded together and because we were strong, there was a lotta negativity because there was just pictures of Black people. That was one of the critiques, that we just photographed Black people. Said, “Yeah. You photograph just White people.” That was the argument.
CUNO: What about the role of the Black Photographers Annual?
COWANS: Well, it was a book that showed a cross section of African American photographers. It wasn’t just Kamoinge photographers; it was a lot of other different photographers who were around who were really good. And we felt that we should show as much of what was going on at that time in photography, because there were a lot of really good photographers. Women photographers, as well as men photographers.
ECKHARDT: Kamoinge had always wanted to do a book. So they did a portfolio in 1964 and another portfolio in 1965, but they really wanted to do a book. But it was extremely difficult to come up with the funding for a book. Books are very expensive to make.
So in 1973, Beuford Smith worked with Joe Crawford to publish the Black Photographers Annual. He was able find funding through Joe Crawford. And he went straight back to the Kamoinge members, however, to be the photography editors. And they put out a call in a number of different Black publications at the time for photographers to submit their work. So they had at least, if I recall correctly, 2,500 submissions to sort through, to pick about 115 images in the first Black Photographers Annual.
So they didn’t just make a book of their own work; what they did was make a book that would more Black photographers the opportunity to publish their work. And it was incredibly popular and successful, and so they did three more Annuals over the next seven years, with the final one in 1980. So it was not officially Kamoinge’s book, and yet it was very much— It was started by Beuford, coming out of Kamoinge, and very much in the spirit of Kamoinge that they published the Black Photographers Annual.
CUNO: What about the role of music? Especially jazz.
COWANS: Well, jazz is as Ted Joans said, “Jazz is my religion.” And that’s the way we looked at it, too. We always had jazz music going on at every meeting. We never had a meeting without jazz. And we discussed the latest records of Bird and Trane and Dizzy and Miles, you know. We talked about that in relationship to what we did. I mean, Roy DeCarava had jazz going on in his darkroom all the time. I had it going on in my loft. I mean, I listened to jazz every day.
And I started as a musician, so music was very important. It was very important to all of us because we related to jazz, blues, gospel. That’s our music. We were connected to it, we felt it, and we related to it, in terms of the way we photographed, too.
CUNO: What about the Kamoinge Artists Book?
COWANS: Oh, that was later on. That was nineties, before we ever had a book. And Tony and— Oh, that was a very difficult process of getting it done, because people wouldn’t turn their work in or they’d turn and say, “We wanna do something else.” It went back and forth for—whew—long time. A long time. It took ten years before we finally got the book together.
And then Tony and Herb took it over. And they took it to a publisher that I had worked with, actually. And I called Tony and I said, “I think that we should go to these guys because they would let us do what we wanted to do and they would publish it.” They didn’t edit it, but they would publish it.
CUNO: What about the role of the photography workshops with Harold Feinstein and Eugene Smith, for example?
COWANS: I met Eugene Smith when I was in school. I went to school at Ohio University, which was one of the only schools that gave a degree in photography. And I went there from ’54 to ’58.
So the idea of street photography, we really love Eugene Smith. We all talked about the hot shot of Schweitzer of his head hanging down and hair; the country doctor, et cetera. He was the quintessential 35mm street photographer. And so we all used mostly 35mm cameras. So the immediacy of that, as opposed to, you know, eight-by-ten or four-by-five.
But we looked at all those guys that we felt, who were Feinstein, Roy, even, you know, Gordon Parks was a part of our discussions, too, because I worked with Gordon Parks, his assistant, when I got out of school. But all those guys were important. We weren’t looking so much at the advertising field. You know, we were more concerned about the immediacy of capturing what was around us in our environments.
ECKHARDT: So Eugene Smith was extremely important for Louis Draper because when he moved from Richmond to New York in 1957, he was trying to find a way to learn photography.
CUNO: This is Draper.
ECKHARDT: This is Louis Draper. Louis Draper was trying to find a way to learn photography formally. And Adger’s program at Ohio University was one of the very, very few professional programs, college degrees you could get in photography. But Louis Draper had been going to Virginia State, and there was not a photography program there. So he left school to go to New York to get his education in photography, because back then, you found a photographer you admired and you apprenticed.
And so for Louis Draper, it was first a class with Harold Feinstein. And then Harold Feinstein was extremely close to Eugene Smith, who lived in this loft where there was just always a scene going on. And one of the things that was a fascinating part of the research was that Eugene Smith taped everything. So he had tapes just rolling all the time, for all of these various conversations. And there’s been an incredible project, in which they listened to all of the tapes, came up with a finding aid for them. This is The Center for Creative Photography that had the tapes, and then Duke University that did a project on them.
And I had an incredible research assistant, Sharia Cochran[sp?], who it took her like two days just to go to through the finding aid to find Louis Draper. But the finding aid made clear Louis Draper was there all the time as his printing assistant. So he was woven throughout these tapes.
So Eugene Smith was just an incredibly important mentor, and I think really where Lou learned how to print. And that then became something that he passed along. You know, I think you and Lou were formally trained at that point; and Al Fennar also, working with Jimmy Mannas and Herb Randall at a film processing place, all had a lot more experience than some of the younger members that then joined, like Anthony Barboza and Shawn Walker and Herb Robinson.
But I think that Eugene Smith’s class style was really important to Louis Draper and the way that he taught, because he learned from Eugene Smith’s seminars that he would hold at his loft.
COWANS: We were all interested in[?] photography. And there was no name for any group at all. You know, until Ray said, “Let’s call it Camera 35.” You know. But in the beginning, there was no name for any of these guys.
And I knew all these other guys, Jimmy and— I had met Herb when Gordon Parks, Jr. and I lived on 81st Street. And he was on the roof across and he was setting up a camera. He wasn’t getting it on the tripod right, and Gordon Jr.— I said, “Hey, man, what are you doing over there? You know what you’re doing?” And we went over and talked to him. So I had met him before he even was doing anything as a photographer.
A lotta people thought, “You guys argue too much.” But we did. It wasn’t actually arguing; it’s discussing photography. And somebody put a photograph up that wasn’t on the case, because you know, Lou and I had been trained. I mean, I had learned under Clarence H. White, Jr. I knew what a good print was. I looked at Weston’s print— actual prints, because there were no books of photography at that time. I saw Ansel Adams’s prints because he had ’em.
So we knew what a good print was and how to make it, so we, you know, taught these guys. We all knew each other very well.
CUNO: Now, what about the role of women in the group? I mean, we’ve mentioned, I think, only one woman so far.
COWANS: Well, alright. I mean, let’s get this straight up front. There was no problem with women being in our group. And Ming nailed it yesterday when she said what it was actually about, her being a photographer and not her being a woman.
CUNO: Ming Smith.
COWANS: Ming Smith, yeah. And there were other women who came in. Ming, she was a model. And she would hear the conversations and, you know, she said one day, very shyly, “I have some pictures.” ’Cause she was like, “You guys are photographers; I’m not,” you know.
And Lou looked at ’em and he said, “Yeah, well, okay.” He said, you know, “Show ’em.” And then we talked about her photographs. I think that it really inspired her to begin to shoot more photographs. And you know, now in the group, we have about five women in the group that have been there for a long time.
CUNO: Sarah how were the photographs selected for the exhibition, for your exhibition?
ECKHARDT: How were the photographs selected? Well, you know, again, for me, the story began with Louis Draper. So because I could go through his entire archive, hundreds of photographs, I had the privilege of looking at multiple prints of the same image, of a number of his photographs.
So slowly, over a couple of years, first I think I acquired thirteen photographs in 2013, and then I went back and got another— We ended up with about fifty photographs of his, just by immersing myself in—
CUNO: This is the Virginia museum.
ECKHARDT: this is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, yes. I just immersed myself in his photographs, working closely with his sister and a gallery in Richmond, Candela. And so I got to know his work really well and chose images that way. And then after that, it was studio visits. And also, there’s a gallery in New York, Keith de Lellis Gallery. So he was showing works by Beuford Smith and Tony Barboza and Shawn Walker. So I saw their works and met them then in person, and just started looking.
So it was really a process, over about five years, of doing multiple studio visits. I went out to Connecticut and spent hours looking through Adger’s work, and Adger would talk about each of the photographs. And after I had time to mull it over, I would pick things; but it was a repeated process, in that what sometimes would merge[?] as an important work, and we would acquire, you know, these were great photographs.
But then I would think back on it, after I had seen more work, and I started to see dialogs that were happening, thematic dialogs, between the artists. And so I went back repeatedly to the photographers and asked to see more work, and then built the collection slowly over those years, with this idea of conversations that they were having, and trying to find works that really spoke to that conversation.
CUNO: Adger, what brought about the end of the Kamoinge Workshop?
COWANS: There’s no end to Kamoinge. It’s changing, but there’s no— We broke up. In the course of those years, we broke up three times. We’d argue and say, “Well, we’re not doing this anymore. It’s too hard and everybody’s got a different idea,” et cetera, et cetera. So we broke up.
And every time we broke up, we said, “Hey, man, how you doing?” We would call each other. Said, “What’re you call—” Said, “We better get back together.” We’re talking to each other, you know. And I remember at one point Shawn said, “Everybody can come to my place and meet.” ’Cause we didn’t have a place to meet. So for a few years, we were all meeting at Shawn’s house.
In that workshop, I’m the president. And we’re moving forward. I have to hire two people to sort of shepherd the group through a new website, through a new process of grant writing. And we’re working on several grants now. We have new, younger photographers in the group. We have about twenty people now. We are working on a show, coming up next year, in Maryland. We have several other shows scheduled. There’s a guy that’s gonna make a film about my life, in relationship to Kamoinge and photography.
So we’re not dead. We’re not dead. We’ve never broken up. The original members, well, a lot of ’em have passed. So there’s the end— that end. But the end of the Kamoinge Workshop has not ended. It’s still together.
ECKHARDT: So I would just say the dates of the exhibition were really determined by this early phase. Kamoinge did a number of exhibitions and worked on things like the Black Photographers Annual. Even though the Black Photographers Annual wasn’t officially Kamoinge, the photo editors, everyone running it, really— It was very much inspired by Kamoinge. Its last issue came out in 1980.
And then the International Black Photographers was this other group that Adger spoke about that Kamoinge also was at the core of the membership. And the project there was really to support younger emerging photographers and to connect them with the legacy of photographers like James Van Der Zee and P.H. Polk and Roy DeCarava—a number of the photographers they wanted to honor. And so that was this moment that went from about 1982, when there was a lot of activity.
But from 1982 until I think it was 1994, Kamoinge stayed together quietly as a group of friends, but didn’t really have formal activities. And then when they started again in the 1990s, they welcomed in a number of new artists. So for the sake of the exhibition, I really wanted to focus on the photographic dialog that was happening in those early years, because that was such a close-knit group for about twenty years that I felt like that could give us this conversation.
They definitely continue and they go forward, but it becomes a much larger group and a larger conversation. And so I think there are a lot of future exhibitions to be had out of the many conversations that emerge out of these early years.
COWANS: That quiet period you’re talking about, we did our own shows. We did our own exhibitions. We did about four different exhibitions. One was on the Black woman. And we have, you know, a little catalog for that. One was one just street photography. We did one about children. And we did one about couples. But we receded from the scene as the Kamoinge group.
We brought in a lot of other people, and then it got— And then some people left and it changed and— But as Kamoinge, the name, we always showed under the Kamoinge name. It was never gone. And then, you know, after Tony stepped down—he was voted down—I became the president. And Russell. And then we went forward. And we still had meetings. You see, the problem was finding a place we could meet as a group. You know, that was always the problem.
And then we finally saw that Danny was working up at Columbia, so we had meetings up there. And we went from every Sunday to every other Sunday. And now we meet once a month online, because of COVID.
COWANS: But we’re beginning to come back. And I just initiated a big party or us at my place in Bridgeport, Connecticut the early part of this year, where everybody came and we were together, you know, just partying.
So we have a lotta things planned for the future. We’re looking right now for a place, a house, a building, that we can have a home and all our work is there and cataloged, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That’s what we’re working on. Because I think that going forward, it’s on us to define our own destiny, which is something I always talk about. You can’t wait for somebody else to do your work for you.
So if we have a place, then we can teach classes, we can have a darkroom and everything. So that’s my focus as president, is to find a building that we can have a home.
CUNO: Well, let’s go look at some photographs.
CUNO: Tell me about this photograph, Three Shadows, 1966.
COWANS: I shot this, actually, in the Bronx, in my girlfriend’s house at the time. And I was looking out the window and I’d shot some pictures and I saw these three girls coming down the street and I waited for them. There’re four shots in this series, but this is the one that I liked. And in my first shot, there’s another part here showing the street and a car, which gives you the time it was shot, which is in the sixties.
CUNO: Well, we should make clear to people that we’re looking at the photograph which has three women walking down the street casting great, long shadows from themselves, so that it looks like they are three shadows walking down the street.
COWANS: Yeah. But the name of the photograph is Three Shadows.
CUNO: What about this one, Footsteps, 1960?
COWANS: I called it Footsteps. A lotta people looked at it and called it Black Man in a White World. But for me, it was about the footsteps that he made in the snow, in this isolated way. And it’s very abstract, but it’s also about the way he’s leaning into the wind, the way he’s got his head down. You know he’s walking; you have that feeling. But it just sets up a motion, you know, with all the snow.
CUNO: And this one, Egg Nude, of 1958?T
COWANS:. I shot this when I was in the Navy and my wife came down. We got housing for married couples. And it’s actually a shout out to Edward Weston, the idea of the human form becoming something else. You see that it’s a nude, but it’s also indicative of birth and a lot of— There’s a lotta symbolism in that image.
My wife complained when I was taking this picture. She’s not one to be photographed naked. But when this was shown at the Metropolitan, when they first did the show of American photography in— She was standing by the photograph and somebody said, “Oh, that’s a great picture.” She said, “Oh, that’s me.”
CUNO: What about this picture? It shows a kind of storefront church. It’s called Little Flower Baptist Church, 1962. Shows a cross in the background.
COWANS: Herb Randall and I both photographed this building. And I used to walk around Harlem with my Leica, and I just love this picture because of the writing and what it said. They were building something, so it says “Danger, Keep Away.” And I’m sort of not a very religious person.
CUNO: And what about these moving pictures here of Malcolm X, 1963, Malcolm X Speaks, showing a big crowd of people in front of a platform. Or this one with Betty Shabazz, the funeral of Malcolm X, 1965?
COWANS: This is Malcolm X in Harlem. I had a 180mm lens that I shot that with. But this was a shot, for me, which I got on the building and I climbed to the top floor and shot. And what I like about this photograph is you see all these shadows. You know, people were saying, you know, they were, “Oh, Malcolm X this; Malcolm X that.” But I wanted to show the immense crowd of people that were following Malcolm X. And I love these little shadows. Only— Almost becomes pointillism. But it’s a different point of view about Malcolm, as opposed to that he’s a bad guy, et cetera.
This is at the funeral of Malcolm X. And this is Betty Shabazz waiting to come out. And this is the side door to the church. And I lived on 150th Street and Convent Avenue at that time, and I was passing by. I didn’t even know. And I knew this guy with the camera here. He was in the union. I was in the cinematographer’s union. And so I jumped in there. He said, “Come on.” Because they had, you know, the banisters up and then we couldn’t get close. And I was able to get that particular shot.
I like it because it’s a quiet moment. You know, everybody’s looking somewhere else. And she’s into herself. You know, the tears and then the funeral.
CUNO: And what about this one, Djuka Woman and Child, from 1969? Shows a woman walking down through a village in Suriname.
COWANS: I went to— I guess it was called Suriname at that time, which was south— Well, you had French Guiana and Dutch Guiana, it was called. And this was Dutch Guiana. And this is up in the bush, about two and a half days by boat. And I wanted to photograph the Djuka people. I just love this particular shot. She’s got the baby, she’s balancing the coals, the kettle. And she stepped over the thing. There were sixteen photographs in the original show called The Djukas. They were the frontline warriors in the fighting for their freedom.
CUNO: Tell me about this one, Mama’s Ohio Piano, about 1965.
COWANS: Mama’s piano. I love this photograph because my mother played this thing over and over again. It’s dogeared. You can see how dogeared it is from her, you know, opening up and playing. And then Ebony magazine, you know, which was a symbol in Black communities. You know, you had to have Ebony magazine. Like most people had Life magazine, we had Ebony.
And this is me and my brother and my cousin, his wife, and my other brother and my sister, and my trumpet. That was the first instrument I had was the trumpet.
CUNO: I love the title of this piece of sheet music.
COWANS: Yeah. Everybody knows this tune, Bless This House. My mother played the piano and I played the trumpet in church.
CUNO: What about this one, Far and Away, 1970, a photograph taken on a rooftop, showing the cloud formations at dusk?
COWANS: I had a rooftop penthouse at 340 West 86th Street. And this is the sun going down. I love the way the sky looked. I lived on the rooftop. And then this little, tiny airplane there just kinda set the whole tone off about that picture.
CUNO: Let’s end with this accordion-fold book, Kamoinge Artists Book, 1972. It starts the exhibition and it ends the exhibition.
ECKHARDT: The Kamoinge Artists Book is one of, I think, the most symbolic and powerful objects in the exhibition. What you’re looking at is an accordion— folded-out accordion-style book, which was handmade by Tony Barboza in 1972, as a Christmas book. He made fourteen books for the fourteen members. And he made a portrait of each of the members, and then he asked each member to choose their own photograph, and he asked them to print it.
Some of them made their own prints; a few of them, I think Tony made the print for them, from their negative, in his own studio. But they’re all printed to be the same size, and then he compiled them and then connected them as a book. And so you have the sense of their individuality, and yet they are literally bound together as a group. And so I think it’s a beautiful place to begin and end the exhibition, because you have that sense of how this is a collective of individual photographers who all have their own individual vision, and yet have chosen to stay together over all these years.
CUNO: Well, thank you, Adger and Sarah. It’s a very moving and beautiful exhibition. Congratulations and many thanks.
COWANS: Thank you. Thank you very much.
ECKHARDT: The exhibition just looks incredible. Thank you so much.
CUNO: Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop is on view at the Getty Center through October 9, 2022. This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ADGER COWANS: There was a lotta negativity because there was just pictures of Black people. That w...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824