Adger Cowans: Footsteps @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 37 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the back office/viewing space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (including 1 triptych), made between 1956 and 1989. Physical sizes range from roughly 6×9 to 16×24 inches (or the reverse), and edition sizes are either 5+2AP or vintage/no edition information provided. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Coming out of the excellent retrospective survey of the Kamoinge Workshop at the Whitney in 2020 (reviewed here), it seemed natural that we would start to see more gallery shows and monographs digging deeper into the work of the individual members of the group. And indeed we have: Louis Draper jumped ahead of the game just a little with an early 2020 gallery show (at Bruce Silverstein, reviewed here); and Ming Smith got double exposure from a 2021 gallery show (at Nicola Vassell, reviewed here) and an Aperture monograph (reviewed here).

Adger Cowans (the current president of the Kamoinge Workshop) hasn’t had a solo gallery show in New York since 1985, so like the others noted above, on the heels of the traveling group exhibition, he is certainly experiencing his own wave of overdue rediscovery. This show samples Cowans’s work across four decades, skipping across subject matter groups and time periods to provide a broader picture of his photographic career.

After graduating with a degree in photography from Ohio University in 1958, Cowans moved to New York, where he began working as an assistant to Gordon Parks at LIFE. By the early 1960s, he had become a founding member of the Workshop, and many of the strongest works in this show come from this decade. The dark figure of a single man trudging along in the middle of the street in the snow-covered city, seen from high above with the parked cars turned into ghostly white mounds, gives the show its title “Footsteps”, and is perhaps Cowans’s best known image. The downward tilt of the man’s head might give us the impression that his mood is weary or forlorn, but the high contrast composition provides a more universal moment of solitary keep-walking grace that might apply to any lonely soul in this town.

While the number of mid 20th century urban street photographers of note is dauntingly large, Cowans has set himself apart by consistently finding lyricism in the streets, rather than clever juxtaposition or heightened drama. Without edging toward cloying or saccharine sweetness, he finds moments that feel authentically warm and attentive, pulling Black humanism out of the the bustle. Other snowy images seem to bookend “Footsteps”, with people carrying umbrellas fighting the snow drifts and the unplowed sidewalks, leading to another image where the tonalities are reversed, and a dark wet city is interrupted by falling white snowflakes and a single white umbrella. The downward viewing angle of “Footsteps” is reprised with even more severity in another memorable image, “Three Shadows”, where the shadows of three pedestrians have been elongated out in front of them like tall totem poles.

Other images tap into the invisible energy of the city with quiet joy and purpose. One couple endearingly slumps against each other in a train car, only the tops of their heads visible above the seat, while another pair is turned into dark silhouettes as they walk in the park at twilight. In two other photographs, similarly dark figures hover in the air: one seemingly changing the letters on a movie marquee and enjoying a rare moment of stillness, the other falling through the air away from a sparkling sun, like Icarus with his melted wings (it was actually a girl tossed in the air at the beach).

When Cowans ventured further from the found lyricism of the streets, he tended to gravitate toward subjects also favored by many of his Black contemporaries. He went south during the Civil Rights movement (and photographed activist Fannie Lou Hamer), and visited churches in Harlem. He attended rallies and marches, photographing crowds listening to Malcom X in 1963, and then witnessed the grim seriousness of the pallbearers at Malcom X’s funeral just two years later. And Cowans also made images of legendary jazz performers, turning John Coltrane into a frenzy of darkly blurred movement and catching Sarah Vaughn at Newport.

While Cowans might have seen or felt pieces of himself in many of the scenes he discovered in the streets, the only real inward looking work in this whole show is a self-portrait triptych from the early 1970s. In it, Cowans lies in the bottom of each frame, underneath a bold shadow pattern cast above him, almost like a stained glass window but punctuated by a motif of spooky eyes. In the three variants, he is shrouded (entirely covered by a piece of cloth), masked, and then simply lying with his face uncovered, “free” as title of the image says. The allusive images are symbolically open-ended enough to encompass many meanings, but it’s clear that Cowans sees a performative progression taking place, with layers of identity being peeled away to reveal inner truths.

As an introductory sampler, this show offers a succinct summary of Cowans’s photographic point of view, providing an approachable entry point for those wanting to go one step beyond the handful of Cowans images included in the Kamoinge Workshop exhibition. And as seen here, what stands out about Cowans’s eye is his willingness to search out the poetry in the streets, even at times when such lyricism wasn’t always easily visible.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $12000 and $24000, with one triptych at $90000. Cowans’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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