Black photographers founded Kamoinge Workshop in 1963. Today, their biggest exhibition comes to the Getty


Hugely popular with the public, Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition of documentary photography for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “The Family of Man,” elicited mixed critical reactions.

Some loved the show, which sought to reveal similarities between diverse people all over the world, as much as mainstream audiences did during an unprecedented eight-year tour of 37 countries around the world. (An estimated nine million people saw it.) Others didn’t.

On the left, French essayist Roland Barthes dismissed the huge assemblage of more than 500 photographs from 68 countries as “conventional humanism.” On the other side of the spectrum, New York critic Hilton Kramer dismissed documentary imagery as a “self-gratifying device to mask the urgency of real issues”.

Many photographers were appalled. Walker Evans, an American artist pivotal in the development of the documentary tradition, who was central to Steichen’s selection, complained of a “sentimental faux pas” – a celebration of inauthentic sentimentality.

Louis Draper, on the other hand, was captivated. Still a student at Virginia State University, a historically black school half an hour south of his hometown of Richmond, and not yet a photographer, he devoured the exhibition catalog. Journalist for the school newspaper, he quickly began to take photos. Before graduating, he moved to New York to immerse himself in the emerging photographic world of the media capital.

We can be happy that he did. At the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Working Together: Photographers from Kamoinge’s Studio” is a captivating exhibition that traces the powerful impact of the artist, along with more than a dozen of his colleagues. Wonderfully curated by Sarah L. Eckhardt of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and overseen at the Getty by Assistant Curator Mazie Harris, it chronicles a crucial artistic development of the second half of the 20th century that has languished in the shadows for too long. Eckhardt’s richly illustrated catalog is excellent.

The Kamoinge studio is the name given to a committed but loosely affiliated group of 14 black photographers, most of whom were brought together by Draper in 1963. A group photo taken by Anthony Barboza 10 years ago gives an indication of their plan in progress: Posed against a plain studio backdrop, the performers are adjacent to a glimpse of ladders, lights and an exit sign to the right, a pointed suggestion of productive daily work in the world.

The massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which rallied following brutal assaults on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, used the Emancipation Centennial to protest against entrenched racial inequalities. That same year, the African nation of Kenya made headlines as it emerged from nearly half a century of British colonial incursion. The intersection between America’s own colonial history and an emerging African consciousness during the civil rights movement is inscribed in the choice of the workshop’s name.

Kamoinge, pronounced by Draper’s band “kuh-average-gay”, was a word of the Kikuyu people of Kenya. Bantu pronunciations differ, but it means “a group of people acting and working together”. The workshop was started by Draper, who died in 2002, along with Albert R. Fennar (1938-2018), James M. Mannas Jr. and Herbert Randall. Ten other artists soon joined them.

Some of Kamoinge’s photographers were formally trained in the medium, and others were self-taught. All continued their own work while supporting and encouraging each other. Often they met on Sundays to criticize and socialize. But the only goal was to recognize both their individual autonomy as artists and their collective consciousness of the black community.

The exhibition is large – some 200 photographs, all in black and white, largely from the studio’s first two decades. The absence of color reflects a general trend in the 1960s and 1970s to separate photography into two camps: color was on the rise, but the expense and complication of production kept its use primarily in the commercial sphere; black and white was for serious art.

More importantly, the flourishing world of the commercial image was an antagonist that Atelier Kamoinge sought to refute. In the mass media, white perceptions of black life dominate. These observations were not always wrong, but they were inevitably limited, repetitive and exclusive. Atelier Kamoinge has brought disparate representation to the fore.

In Draper’s 1971 portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, the face of the indomitable Mississippi suffrage activist fills the frame, staring head-on into the camera lens. He is an unwavering force, not intimidating or angry but intense and determined.

C. Daniel Dawson came up close to photograph a black body of indeterminate sex lying on a bed, a composition in three registers from bottom to top: the glimpse of a sheet, the curved bulge of a shoulder, and the back of a head. An anonymous but intimate figure oscillates between landscape and abstraction.

An aerial view of three people walking down the street stretch their shadows from the low angle of a setting sun at the end of the day. Adger Cowans rotated the print 90 degrees, the elongated shadows now rising rather than spreading, turning the trio into titans in stride.

In “Pensacola, Florida”, Barboza imagined a broken neon sign on a dilapidated building. At the heart of the sign, the word “freedom” is broken, the “e” broken and the “r” hanging askew.

As abstraction was a contentious issue for painters and sculptors of the time, and one that presented particular obstacles for camera work, Fennar photographed from below a huge roadside “salt pile” covered of tarps. Its patterned surface offers a mysterious mountain of abstract shapes beneath soft 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 coat stands with his arms behind his back in front of the facade of a glass office building, his reflective sunglasses reflecting what’s in front of him – including what appears to be the artist – as surely as the window reflects urban passers-by and cars parked on the street behind the photographer. Woven in the random, fluttering activity, the hanging American flags or banners behind the glass provide both firm structure and a sense of enclosure.

These are not images of black life being so brutal, demoralized and tense. They are also not promotional. Instead, a simple dignity to which every person is entitled is the visual baseline; illuminating the human experience in America is the aspiration.

What the Kamoinge workshop faced is revealed in a disturbing display case, which contains Newsweek’s infamous August 3, 1964, coverage of riots in Harlem, NY, after an off-duty white police officer fired and killed an African. American teenager on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The magazine’s white photographers would not venture into the uptown chaos and no black artists were on staff to illustrate the impending story. Freelancer Roy DeCarava, now Kamoinge’s most famous photographer, was hired to provide a suitable image.

DeCarava asked studio colleagues Ray Francis (1937-2006), Shawn Walker and Draper to pose, and he photographed their unsmiling faces close-up with their heads in a syncopated row, almost like the presidential faces in stone arranged on Mount Rushmore. When the magazine came out, however, the photograph had been heavily cropped, with the misleading title “Harlem: Hate in the Streets” emblazoned below. The archetypal White Fear of the Angry Black Man has been splashed on newsstands and dropped in mailboxes coast to coast. DeCarava, who died in 2009 at age 89, declined Newsweek assignments for the rest of his life.

Atelier Kamoinge fused two artistic legacies in the particular context of an oppressed minority community. Traditional African art represents a social project, while contemporary American art embodies a more solitary pursuit, with the artist working alone in the studio and darkroom. All was not ideal. Smith, for example, was the only woman in the group, and she only joined after nearly a decade. The flippant sexism of the era is undeniable.

But so is the power of the art that Atelier Kamoinge photographers have 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 the “false heart feeling” is nowhere to be found.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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