Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A group show bringing together roughly 140 black and white photographs from 14 photographers/artists. The prints are variously framed/matted and hung against white, light grey, and dark grey walls (or displayed in vitrines) in a series of three connected spaces on the seventh floor of the museum. The exhibit was organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Dr. Sarah Eckhardt. The installation at the Whitney was overseen by Carrie Springer, with assistance from Mia Matthias.

The following photographers have been included in the exhibition, with the number of works on view and their dates as background:

  • Anthony Barboza: 18 gelatin silver prints, 1965, 1966, c1970, c1970s, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1978, c1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1 set of 14 gelatin silver prints, 1972, 1 artists’ book, 1972
  • Adger Cowans: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1958, 1960, c1960, 1963, 1965, c1965, 1966, 1970
  • C. Daniel Dawson: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1978
  • Roy DeCarava: 1 photobook, 1955, 1 Newsweek magazine cover, 1964
  • Louis H. Draper: 16 gelatin silver prints, 1959, c1960, 1960s, 1960-1967, c1965, 1966, 1966-1972, 1967, 1968, 1975, 1978
  • Al Fennar: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1975
  • Ray Francis: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1960s-1970s, 1964, 1965, 1966-1968, 1971
  • Herman Howard: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1960s, 1970s
  • James M. Mannas Jr.: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1972, 1973
  • Herbert Randall: 10 gelatin silver prints, c1960, 1964, 1960s, 1970s
  • Herb Robinson: 11 gelatin silver prints: 1961, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1979
  • Beuford Smith: 15 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972
  • Ming Smith: 7 gelatin silver prints, c1972, c1973, 1976, 1978
  • Shawn Walker: 12 gelatin silver prints, c1960, c1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970s, 1972
  • Calvin Wilson: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1960s, 1964, 1965
  • Miscellaneous ephemera (exhibition announcements, books, newsletters, portfolios)

(Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (here) and distributed by Duke University Press (here). (Cover image below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, we have seen the tide finally start to turn against the overwhelming dominance of the white male artist. The wider public has asked to see other artistic vantage points more forcefully than ever before, and galleries and museums are beginning to respond, by featuring more art by women, people of color, and other previously marginalized voices. In some cases, this has kicked off a mad scramble to rediscover those who had long been overlooked, and to rebalance everything from exhibition calendars to permanent collections to better represent a diversity of perspectives.

In the previous telling of the history of American photography, the contributions of Black photographers have long been centered on just a handful of early to mid 20th century artistic names – primarily James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarava. Once we jump to more contemporary times, a generation led by Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Dawoud Bey, Lyle Ashton Harris, and others has built a broader foundation of influence and community, but what Black photographers were doing between the late 1950s and the early 1980s has been much less well recognized. This show aims to fill in that gap, at least from a New York-centric perspective.

Given the biases and prejudices of the 1960s art world, the group of Black photographers on view here joined together in 1963 to form the Kamoinge Workshop (“a group of people acting together, in Gikuyu), essentially self-organizing to provide themselves with an alternate mode of community and support. This exhibition takes a look at the work of fourteen photographers who were involved with the group, centering mostly on images made in the 1960s and early 1970s.

What stands out most about this well-curated show is its conscious egalitarianism. We might have expected such a show to be a parade of individual artistic histories, introducing us to the work of these photographers in a one-by-one fashion, so we could understand their specific perspectives and artistic strengths, and readily identify a few standouts. But Working Together doesn’t opt for a personality-based structure, even though all of the artists are celebrated with headshots so we can know them by face and name. Instead, it selects a handful of subject matter themes that encapsulate the most prominent interests of the group, and then gathers resonant images by the various photographers under these themes. While many, if not most, of the photographers contribute photographs to almost all of the themes, we’re never presented with individual silos – we’re essentially offered a portrait of a high-powered photographic team who collectively blanketed topics of relevance to the Black community, almost in a matrixed fashion.

Given the time period we’re talking about, it’s not surprising that many of the Kamoinge photographers made images documenting different aspects of the Civil Rights movement, both in the South and up North. The show includes images of Mississippi from the Freedom Summer, gatherings of Black Muslims in New York, impassioned speeches by Malcom X and Porkchop Davis, and the amplified emotions of various rallies, protests, and funerals. Some of the most resonant images in this section use the American flag as a visual device: blowing across a woman’s face and blocking her view (by Anthony Barboza), hanging from the hands of a street speaker (by Beuford Smith), and hung in a storefront window behind a man in sunglasses (by Ming Smith.) In each case, the potency of the American symbol is given charged context when seen from within the Black experience.

The mid-1960s were a similarly vibrant time for Black musicians, and the Kamoinge photographers were there to take visual notes. Jazz players both known and unknown were a common subject, represented here by Louis Draper’s pictures of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Herb Robinson’s images of Davis and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Ming Smith’s sparkling portrait of Sun Ra, and Beuford Smith’s swinging photograph of two silhouetted bass players. The inclusion of C. Daniel Dawson’s intense portrait of Amiri Baraka at his typewriter broadens the reach of these pictures to include the wider Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. And while these images document a particular group of notable individuals, many at the height of their careers, they are also evidence of the talent these photographers had for capturing not just a face but a sense of artistic spirit.

Many of the strongest photographs in this show don’t neatly fit into one thematic category, but instead find the lyricism in everyday life, as lived by Black Americans. Anthony Barboza uses an open car door to interrupt a man’s face and plays with the competing patterns of a man’s shirt and a brick wall in the background. Louis Draper features the broad John Henry-like back of man in the street and uses the pushcart of a Garment District worker to frame a scene. Herbert Randall follows bunches of kids in the Lower East Side and catches two men athletically jumping into an open truck trailer. Beuford Smith sees the solitary despair of a man bent over in the Lower East Side and the awkward risk-taking joy of a boy falling into a wet gutter in Bed-Stuy. Ming Smith shows us the quiet elegance of a plastic bag floating in the breeze and Harlem ladies in elaborate hats. Shawn Walker uncovers an improvised basketball hoop made from a broken bushel basket and a wonderfully optimistic car wash guy. And Herb Robinson finds the easy going grace of a couple relaxing in Central Park, Adger Cowans watches a lonely man trudge through the snow, and on and on the parade of life goes. This section of the show is extremely deep, with durably well-crafted images arriving in thick bunches.

The real surprises to be found in this exhibition come in the middle section, where the photographers forego strict documentation and explore more expressive and experimental techniques, including moving all the way to abstraction. One wall connects white sheets that look like Ku Klux Klan hoods (by Draper), a neon LIBERTY sign with a fallen E (by Barboza), and a reflected montage of the American flag and an NAACP sweatshirt (by Cowans) into a resonant sweep of implied commentary. On another, cast shadows and dark silhouettes create anonymous everyman figures in works by Al Fennar, Ming Smith, and Cowans, while Barboza and Beuford Smith go further with an extended arm and a boy on a swing. Other groups of pictures capture flares of light animating puddles, misty skies enveloping small figures and objects, and photographer self-portrait shadows interrupting walls, mosaics, and waterfalls. And two knockout photographs reimagine the human body, turning a nude form into a monumental egg (by Cowans) and a resting head and shoulder into a convincingly undulating landscape (by Dawson.) In these and other pictures, the Kamoinge group actively (and successfully) stretches its aesthetic boundaries, embracing a range of approaches to speaking with imagery.

In the end, this exhibition leaves us with both a look back and a look forward. Looking back, we must more forcefully acknowledge that the history of photography has been distorted by the relative omission of compelling Black photographers like these, and that more work is now required to rebalance the scales and rewrite the history books to account for their contributions. Looking forward, this realization should mean a flurry of individual shows and monographs featuring these photographers, allowing us to dig deeper into their particular stories and photographic triumphs. This handsome and overdue survey delivers the initial catalyst to action – it opens the door,  dazzles and entices us with rediscoveries, and now encourages us to take the next step. How we collectively respond will determine whether the current interest in talented Black photographers like these is a passing moment or the start of more substantive change.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of photographers included, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Adger Cowans, Al Fennar, Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, C. Daniel Dawson, Calvin Wilson, Herb Robinson, Herbert Randall, Herman Howard, James M. Mannas Jr., Louis Draper, Ming Smith, Ray Francis, Roy DeCarava, Shawn Walker, Whitney Museum of American Art

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