Shawn W. Walker, Lost and Found @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office areas.

The following works are included in the show (no edition information was provided);

  • 15 gelatin silver prints, flush mounted on board, 1960/c1960, 1961-1962/c1961-1962, 1962/c1962, 1962-1963/c1962-1963, 1963/c1963, 1965/c1965, 1968/c1968, 1970/c1970, sized roughly 7×8, 7×9, 9×7, 8×9, 8×10 inches
  • 20 gelatin silver prints, mounted on board, 1963/c1963, 1964/c1964, 1967/c1967, 1968/c1968, 1960s/c1960s, 1972/c1972, sized roughly 5×6, 5×7, 7×5, 7×6, 5×8, 8×5, 8×6, 9×5 inches
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1960s/1960s, 1970s/c1970s, sized roughly 5×7, 7×5, 8×10 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many of the members of the Kamoinge Workshop, the past few years must have felt like a wonderfully wild ride. After decades of being overlooked by the larger art and photography worlds, the renewed wave of interest in Black photographers, and particularly those voices which had been marginalized in the past, first led to the excellent touring museum survey of the group’s work that had a stop at the Whitney in 2021 (reviewed here), and has now built continued momentum through an ongoing parade of solo museum and gallery shows, photobooks, and other events for Anthony Barboza, Adger Cowans, Roy DeCarava, Louis Draper, and Ming Smith, among others.

For Shawn Walker, one of the founding members of Kamoinge, one might argue that he was a little ahead of the wave, which has created some unique circumstances. After a gallery show or two in the mid 2010s, Walker made the decision in 2019 to sell much of his photographic archive (some 100,000 prints, negatives, and transparencies of his own work, as well as some 2,500 prints, artifacts, and other materials from Kamoinge) to the Library of Congress, becoming the first such archive of a Black artist to be acquired by the venerable institution. But this massive sale has inadvertently left Walker without many vintage prints to meet the increasing demand for his work now coming from collectors and other institutions.

The prints in this show come from an unexpected source – the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the NYPL. The prints were rediscovered in storage boxes there after some fifty years of being essentially overlooked (thus the “Lost and Found” name given to this gallery show), and after some detective work and discussion (how did the prints get there? who owned them? etc.), the prints were released back to Walker. All were made (and printed) in the first decade of his career (from the early 1960s to the early 1970s), providing a succinct sampler of the early part of his sixty year photographic journey.

Many of Walker’s earliest pictures were made right on the streets of Harlem, in direct interaction with the people living there. Scotty’s improvised car wash, with his chalked list of services, offers a sense of low key entrepreneurial optimism, while another man collects junk in the trunk of a car and in a baby stroller. Walker captures other residents in a moment of rest, leaning on what might be a shovel handle and sitting on what looks like an overturned mailbox. Still other pictures document street markets and shoppers with bags, the fruit and vegetable crates piled high underneath dark overpasses.

Racial tension was part of life in Harlem, and Walker found ways to thoughtfully weave it into his pictures. In one photograph, a group of white cops lingers with their helmets and billy clubs after a riot, just outside a store claiming to be the “nicest in the neighborhood”. In others, a young Black boy plays with a white doll, and a black man in a fedora sits next to a torn political poster for a white councilman, the racial realities subtle but all too apparent. A few of Walker’s strongest images push beyond this kind of straightforward contrast to more poignant and almost allegorical scenes of the struggles being faced by Black residents. Rubble strewn alleys and streets in middle grey provide the backdrop for two such images, one of a group of kids titled “Innocence” and another of a man walking titled “Going in the Only Direction Left”. Another street scene places a young Black girl in a white dress behind the bars of a fence, making a visual allusion to prison, and a well-known portrait poses a young Black boy with an American flag, offering a number of potential interpretations, from aspirational and patriotic to more weary and wary.

In the following years, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Walker’s work becomes slightly more project driven. He took a three-month trip to Cuba on assignment, coming back with pictures of men holding chickens and machine guns. He then paid more sustained attention to the devastating effect drug use was having on Harlem, getting close to drug dealers and junkies and making pictures of users cooking dope, snorting it, and hanging around limply, waiting for the next high. And he subsequently traveled to Guyana (to avoid attention from the FBI, who didn’t approve of his visit to Cuba), settling into the rhythms of street life there.

For those attempting to reconstruct the visual history of the Kamoinge photographers, these rediscovered rarities offer an elusive chance to step back into Walker’s formative years. These early prints show the young photographer to be an attentive observer of people, wherever he went, his pictures consistently finding the nuances of lives being lived out in the streets. He watched marching bands, parade participants, and kids in Halloween costumes with the same compassion he applied to those under more visible strain, seemingly always aware of the moment when an anonymous stranger might become the beginning of a more complex visual story. Even in his darkest pictures, there is a tangible sense of understanding, concern, and shared humanity.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $15000. Walker’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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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I always appreciate a review of an exhibition I know little about and more importantly makes me have to see it. Which will be this weekend. Thank you.

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