Louis Draper, True Grace @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 62 gelatin silver black-and-white photographs, framed and matted, and exhibited on light gray walls in four rooms of the gallery. Two images were made in 1958 and 1959 and one in 1995; the majority date from the mid-1960s and a substantial minority from the 1970s. Most of the prints are vintage, while a handful were printed later, and they range in size from roughly 6×4 to 11×14 inches (or the reverse). All are estate stamped. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Is Louis Draper (1935-2002) about to become famous? Or just a lot more recognized and respected than he was during his lifetime? Whatever happens, better late than never.

A photographer who roamed the inner cities of the East Coast for more than 30 years and taught for 20 years (1982-2002) at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, he is the headliner for the group exhibition Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop, which recently opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (here) and travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in July. Duke University Press has published a catalog, edited by VMFA curator Sarah Eckhardt (here).

For those who can’t wait, the Silverstein gallery has provided the ideal introduction to an artist of remarkable conviction and versatility. At the core of Draper’s practice was the desire to present the soulful dignity of African-American life—what he called “true grace.” He had grown up in Virginia under Jim Crow but wanted his photographs to do more than serve as emblems of protest against decades of legalized discrimination. “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” he once said. “I want a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negros which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”

One cornerstone of his oeuvre were portraits of neighbors and strangers encountered on walks around New York City and Philadelphia, and during a two-year visit to Senegal in the late ‘70s. These people were arranged as he found them or captured unawares and invariably depicted as if each one innately mattered. The introspective moods of children and the athletic antics of teenagers were favorite subjects. Keeping an eye on what was happening in the streets, he often spiked his compositions with incongruous elements. A photograph taken from an apartment window looks down at two boys drag-racing a baby carriage on a sidewalk in the rain beside a big-finned Cadillac parked at the curb (c. 1960s). A rushing pedestrian in New York City is pincered between the fingertips of God and Adam from the Sistine Ceiling, background figures on a fractured mural in Herald Square (1995). His pictures were enriched by pieces from other pictures—billboards, posters, chalk drawings.

When called upon to portray celebrities, he found his own way to present them. He posed a bejeweled Ruby Dee, dressed in a voluminous ball gown and long gloves, on a New York rooftop (c. 1960). The tight cropping on the face of Fannie Lou Hamer, the fearless and devoutly religious civil rights and women’s rights activist from Mississippi, conveys both her strength and sweetness (1971).

Draper did not limit himself to portraiture. During his urban wanderings, his eye was often drawn to inscrutable street objects, such as a black leather jacket hung on the prongs of an iron fence on the Lower East Side (c. 1970), or to the fickle interplay of light and object, as in Untitled (Swing and Shadow) from 1967. He made a series of high-contrast prints of a worker grappling with the pieces of a building under construction, man and metal silhouetted against a blank sky (c. 1970s). His compositions could get wild, as in a portrait of a plus-size black woman in white dress and hat, with white-rimmed glasses, at the Fulton Art Fair in Brooklyn. She is looking suspiciously back at him and fills the frame except for the head of a black child at the bottom and a poster of Jesus sweating bloody tears (1964-65). From the evidence here, his photos never entirely cut ties to representation. But a close-up of an interior from his later years (c. 1990s) showing a grayish abstract painting next to the sinuous straps of a black dress on a clear plastic hanger comes close to being a pure study in line and mass.

His careful observations of people and things were expressed through a polished darkroom technique. If the sumptuous tones and stark contrasts in his black-and-white prints are reminiscent of Dave Heath’s, that’s no accident, as Draper was taught by and emulated W. Eugene Smith, who was also Heath’s guiding light. A traditionalist who had a high regard for the black-and-white craftsmanship practiced by Ansel Adams and his disciples, Draper acknowledged this lineage with a picture of a doorway, window, trash can, and deeply shadowed street titled In Front of Paul Caponigro’s House, Bethel, Connecticut (1969). Like his friend and mentor Roy DeCarava, he gravitated toward the darkest shades of the gray scale, as in his portrait of Miles Davis on stage with bassist Ron Carter (c. 1960s) and a group portrait of a black modern dance troupe (c. 1970s.)

The Kamoinge Workshop, which Draper co-founded in 1960 with Ray Francis, was an African-American collective that grew to include Anthony Barboza, Adjer Cowans, Danny Dawson, Al Fennar, Herman Howard, Earl James, Jimmy Mannas, Herbert Randall, Herb Robinson, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith, Larry Stewart, Shawn Walker, and Calvin Wilson. DeCarava served as its first director. Membership did not require subscribing to any artistic or political doctrine, but the photographers shared a belief that black artists should support one another in an institutional environment of museums and galleries that throughout the latter half of the 20th century was indifferent or hostile to their vision of themselves and their communities. (The word Kamoinge is from the Kikuyu language and translates as “group effort.”)

One reason that Draper never achieved his just recognition is that he didn’t conform to the times. His engaged humanism was out of step with the disinterested snapshot style of his younger white contemporaries Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, and Lee Friedlander, all of whom gained prominence in the 1960s as Draper was hitting his stride. Nor did he consider himself a photojournalist in the manner of Bruce Davidson or Leonard Freed. Draper’s photographs were largely free of topical news value. His work was wholly personal and recalled the earnestness of Smith and older figures such as Aaron Siskind, Helen Levitt, and Gordon Parks. If Draper is gaining overdue attention now it’s not only that curators are trying to repair gaping holes in the art historical record but because purity of conviction, paired with an impressive technique, never goes out of style.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8000 and 15000, with the majority either $10000 or $12000. Draper’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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