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The history of the Kamoinge Workshop, a group of Black photographers founded in 1960s Harlem, is documented and analyzed from multiple, beautifully blended perspectives in this important, substantial book. I had expected to study it after viewing the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) exhibition for which it serves as a catalog. However, shortly after the exhibition opened, the venue was closed to the public, another museum casualty of COVID-19.
Louis Draper, the founding member and mainstay of the collective, wrote in his history of the workshop: “‘Kamoinge’ is derived from the Kikuyu [a language of Kenya] and represented, in essence, an ideal. Literally translated, it reads ‘a group of people acting together.’” The workshop was a group of around fifteen members at any given time that met regularly for discussion and debate about photography, education, and mutual support, as well as for camaraderie. The workshop initially had official rules and procedures: members voted on new members, and minutes of meetings were taken. It was a male brotherhood until one woman, Ming Smith, joined on equal terms.
The VMFA’s video tour of the exhibition simulates a sweeping in-person view, revealing a visitor-friendly installation. I had an impression of brilliant photographic prints, so some reproductions in the book suffer by contrast, a few looking rather muddy. The originals generally have greater tonal separation in dark areas. An example of this variability occurs within the book: a definitive Draper photograph, John Henry, is reproduced four times. The first, accompanying the preface, is much too dark. The second instance, on the cover of Camera magazine, July 1966, renders excellent detail—in a reproduction of a reproduction—and two other variants are reasonably successful. Minor errors, including the misspelling of the camera brand Yashica, suggest haste in editing, especially one instance of a phrase repeated from one page to the next, but these quibbles do not detract from the otherwise high quality of this book and its multiple facets.
After the director’s foreword is an incisive preface by Deborah Willis, the leading historian of Black photography, who has provided many such introductions for the expanding literature in the field. “Curator’s Remarks” by Sarah L. Eckhardt, the exhibition’s curator, and “Louis Draper’s History of the Kamoinge Workshop,” a reproduction of his typed, illustrated summary, complete the introductory matter.
Next are three insightful scholarly chapters by Eckhardt: “An Introduction to Working Together,” “A History of the Kamoinge Workshop (1962–1982),” and “Before Kamoinge: Louis Draper’s Artistic Formation.” These essays are separated by reproductions of Kamoinge Workshop Portfolio No. 1 (1964) and Kamoinge Workshop Portfolio No. 2 (1965) and the Kamoinge Artists’ Book. She provides an insightful biography of Draper, the guiding force behind Kamoinge, including the transformative moment when he discovered the book version of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition, mysteriously placed on his college dormitory bed by an anonymous benefactor.
One of Eckhardt’s important contributions is her description of a heated debate about discrimination during a 1963 meeting of aspiring Black photographers with two already renowned figures, Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava (who was briefly a workshop member and its first chair), along with white representatives of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP). Parks revealed a disappointing timidity about advocacy for increased Black membership amid DeCarava’s accusations of racism and agreed with white ASMP members that the latter’s primary role should be to provide education and mentorship to help “mediocre” Black photographers climb the “white” ladder to success. DeCarava denounced this attitude as obvious racial bias. Not a mere token Black member of ASMP, Parks was a famed Life magazine photographer (since 1948) whose well-known work for Roy Stryker’s government programs ensured his inclusion. Eckhardt highlights the challenges for Black photographers, especially the Kamoinge group, during a period when, like creative workers in any field, they faced invisibility and racism. Although photojournalists like Parks and W. Eugene Smith were followed in the pages of Life and Look picture magazines by an avid public and revered by other photographers, photographs of any tradition were generally not accepted as “art” by museums, collectors, and academics—until the sales of photographs in respected auction houses in the late 1960s alerted critics to the creative possibilities of the medium and the value of photographs as commodities.
Erina Duganne’s “Unlearning Street Photography from the Kamoinge Workshop” differentiates the “modernist” aesthetic of street photography based on the “decisive moment” theory of Henri Cartier-Bresson from the street photographs by Kamoinge members Draper, Beuford Smith, and Anthony Barboza. Draper claimed his work was based on intentionality rather than happenstance, since he worked within predetermined themes. Much of Draper’s street photography depended upon postvisualization in the darkroom, the antithesis of the decisive moment philosophy. Duganne shows that even abstraction was an aspect of Kamoinge street photography, although not through imagery reminiscent of Aaron Siskind’s classic style. Abstraction for Kamoinge required grounding in the identifiable realities of urban streets and a connection to Black themes. In a “Fictions” section, Duganne considers a sequence of staged fashion photographs by Barboza published in Essence magazine, with a provocative text, as “street photographs.” This may be the most controversial portion of the book, as the blatantly sexist text accompanying the photographs objectified Black women. Duganne explains that Barboza’s female models represented an ideal of Black nationalist womanhood for this period, an adroit way to introduce this theme.
“Reading between the Photographs: Serious Sociality in the Kamoinge Workshop” by Romi Crawford emphasizes the importance of collective endeavors to the group, both to facilitate exhibitions, publications, and other projects and to support individual artistic growth. Relying upon evidence in the Draper archive, she describes the group’s dynamics, especially regarding their crucial encounter with censorship. When their 1965 Negro Woman exhibition became controversial due to Shawn Walker’s nude studies, the group coalesced around him and closed the exhibition rather than expurgate the show.
John Edwin Mason contributes two chapters, “The Sounds They Saw: Kamoinge and Jazz” and “Do for Self! Art, Commerce, Community, and the Kamoinge Workshop.” The first draws analogies between jazz and photography while also emphasizing the central importance of jazz to Kamoinge, not merely as background music for meetings but also for creative inspiration, including the adoption of characteristics of jazz in the formulation of a distinctive Black aesthetic. Leading Black jazz musicians were revered as consummate artists who inspired photographers through their pursuit of excellence. Kamoinge’s admiration for portrayals of jazz musicians by white photographers Herman Leonard and William Gottlieb stimulated their own documentation of Black musicians. In a trenchant observation, Mason draws a parallel between improvisation in jazz and the improvisational strategies that Black photographers needed to develop their art and, by extension, that all African Americans required to survive within a racist environment. The Kamoinge photographers were dedicated to the production of single, independent works in the fine-art tradition. It is surprising, however, that the form of time-based music did not also suggest multiple-image narratives and sequences to these artists.
Mason’s “Do for Self!” essay concerns the application of Elijah Muhammad’s emphasis on collective and individual action to Kamoinge’s program. Muhammad and Malcolm X stressed self-reliance and coordinated group action, which helped to crystallize the conclusions that had emerged from the contentious ASMP meeting. The Black-themed 1965 exhibitions Theme Black and The Negro Woman were the results, along with Portfolio No. 1 and Portfolio No. 2.
Bill Gaskins concludes the primary texts with a blistering critique of white apathy toward and resistance to Black empowerment in “True & Free: A Creation Story of The Black Photographers Annual,” placing his narrative within the context of the Black Arts Movement and increased African American militancy. The titular series of annuals was in part a reaction to the fact that Black photographers were not represented in publications such as the Photography Annual published by Popular Photography magazine, although the 1965 Annual includes “Black” subject content: iconic images from 1963 civil rights demonstrations. Gaskins berates museum curators, especially John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), for failing to collect and exhibit the work of Black photographers and castigates the “formalist” aesthetic that excluded African American content and perspectives. While I acknowledge Szarkowski’s failure to be “inclusive” in exhibitions and collecting, it seems curious to characterize his 1967 New Documents exhibition as “groundbreaking,” then claim that Diane Arbus displayed no “social awareness.” Ironically, Szarkowski’s predecessor at MOMA, Edward Steichen, was receptive to photojournalism and had taken an interest in the Kamoinge photographers. He invited Kamoinge members to participate in a Danbury, Connecticut, show in 1963—too late for more prestigious exposure at MOMA. Gaskins does not mention Cornell Capa’s 1975 exhibition of Kamoinge photographs at the International Center of Photography.
The success of the Kamoinge-sponsored Black Photographers Annual in bringing Black photography to greater view was important, but it hardly ensured future success within rapidly evolving photographic praxis and tastes. Nevertheless, the concentrated group action that produced the four annuals was a triumph. Similarly, many dedicated hands and eyes, “working together,” lavished fine work on the important Draper archive, this major exhibition, and a rich, scholarly book that together celebrate the Kamoinge photographers and form an exceptionally timely and relevant commemoration in this tumultuous year.
Curator of Photography, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution