AN UNSOLVED MYSTERY lies at the heart of Louis Draper’s artistic life. In the autumn of 1956, when he was the cameraman for his college newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia, someone left a copy of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man, published the previous year, on his bed. “I lived in the dorm with four other people, none of whom owned up to it,” Draper recalled in an interview less than a year before his death in 2002. “I have no idea to this day who left that copy on my bed.” Steichen’s book, a catalogue for the famed exhibition of the same title at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—packed with more than five hundred images by nearly three hundred photographers from sixty-eight countries and self-styled as the “greatest photographic exhibition of all time”—was designed to have a monumental reach, addressing viewers in the “universal language” of photography. On display, Steichen explained in his introduction, were pictures concerned “with man’s dreams and aspirations and photographs of the flaming creative forces of love and truth.”
Initially hailed as a triumph, Steichen’s undertaking is now remembered for its blind spots—accused of American mythmaking, of eliding issues of race and class, and of adhering to the patriarchal framework its title implies. These criticisms are valid, and it could even be argued that “The Family of Man” embodied many of the very problems concerning representation that Draper would soon organize against. Yet from the moment he discovered the book, Draper’s own aspirations crystallized: He would stick with photography. At the library of Virginia State College (now University), a historically Black school, he immersed himself in the study of the medium and learned that the practitioners whose work he admired lived in New York. And so, dropping out in his final year of college, he went north.
As he settled in New York, Draper threw himself into clarifying what a life in photography could mean. First, he got more education, taking workshops with Harold Feinstein and the pioneering photo-essayist W. Eugene Smith, who employed him as an assistant. Then, in 1963, he began to meet with three other Black photographers. They came together on Sunday evenings, listening to music and eating while discussing their craft. “Once in a while,” Draper wrote in a short history published in a 1972 issue of Photo Newsletter, “a most pertinent thought might be offered just as Jim Brown streaked downfield on a long touchdown jaunt.” What mattered was the familial conviviality, the serious intent to make and critique photographs. The group of four was merged with a similar outfit named Group 35 after the 35-mm cameras used by its members, also African American. This larger band chose the name Kamoinge Workshop for itself. It is not certain who among the initial dozen or so members had proposed this Kikuyu term for “a group of people acting together”; they’d picked up the word from Facing Mount Kenya (1938), an anthropological treatise by Jomo Kenyatta in defense of Pan-Africanism.
An exhibition currently underway at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—also viewable online—brings Draper’s legacy to light, and that of the Kamoinge Workshop as an extension of it. In 2015, the photographer’s sister, Nell Draper-Winston, facilitated the museum’s gift purchase of his archive, a trove that has supplied the photographs, meeting minutes, interviews, documents, and ephemera included in “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” and its catalogue, edited by the show’s curator, Sarah L. Eckhardt. Something about Kamoinge seems to inspire the giving of gifts: In 1972, around the time when Draper wrote his Photo Newsletter article, member Anthony Barboza made portraits of his colleagues. He asked that they each choose one of their own compositions to go with their portrait and develop fourteen prints of it. Placing portrait and photograph side by side, he produced the same number of accordion-bound books: a Christmas present for each member.
Those fourteen submissions to Barboza were, in retrospect, Kamoinge’s entrée en matière, offering a silvery triangulation of photography, community, and individual artistic vision: a view of a slanted brick wall by Barboza showing clusters of a cloud bank mirrored by the windowpane; the backside of a woman, up close and lustrous, by Adger Cowans; C. Daniel Dawson’s image of a horizon of sloping shoulder below an androgynous head turned away; a stick figure scrawled on a ripped poster, likely by Draper himself; Salt Pile, 1971, Al Fennar’s shot of a towering stretch of stitched sacks; an abstraction by James “Ray” Francis, perhaps wavy patterns of fine beach sand; a girl standing close to the edge of a wall, facing Herman Howard with a sidelong glance, feeling YOUNG, one of several graffitied words; Jimmie Mannas’s portrait of a beaming child wearing a torn tank top, beside them a blurred hand and foot; a darkling image of a girl descending a long stairway at the top of which is a flaring spotlight, by Herb Randall; Herb Robinson’s portrait of two unsmiling children, the one above pressing the fingers of both hands together, as if sucking her thumb, and the one below looking away, lips pursed and gaze stony; Beuford Smith’s silhouetting of two unidentified jazz players seen from the rear; Ming Smith’s off-the-cuff portrait of a tall and wiry figure walking windward on a Dakar road; a snapshot of four matronly women balancing raffia baskets on their heads, by Shawn Walker; and Calvin Wilson’s austere aerial shot of someone approaching a bench, its frame as slender as the bars of the fences that cast shadows across the length of the snowy picture plane.
The symbiosis was there, even as each member of Kamoinge developed his or her individual practice and established a career in fashion, advertising, painting, filmmaking, and education. Several made photographs of the jazz scene; several traveled throughout the African diaspora, and for most, the line blurred between oblique abstraction and reportage—just as the line blurred between work that celebrated Black life and work that protested its devaluation. What mattered in the first place, however, was that they were Black, and that they were photographers in a country where their work didn’t seem to matter. Given another opportunity to describe the purpose of the group at New York University’s American Photography Seminar in 1995, Draper framed it as a “forum of peers” who operated against the backdrop of the “volatile political climate of the 1960s and the emerging African consciousness exploding within us.” In addition, he said, they hoped “Kamoinge would also give us the strength to continue in the face of a largely hostile and at best indifferent photographic community.”
On January 29, 1964, the American Society of Magazine Photographers held a meeting to discuss discrimination in its field. Although it is now unclear which members of the Kamoinge Workshop were in attendance, we know that Roy DeCarava, who accepted an invitation to serve as Kamoinge’s first chairman, spiritedly portrayed the group’s perspective, one that had, in a forum a few months prior, met with gentle resistance from Gordon Parks. (Both titans, as it happens, were included in “The Family of Man.”) Parks made remarks in support of the ASMP, whose leaders felt that even if Black photographers faced discrimination generally, they did not face bias within their own organizations. “If you try, you will succeed,” Ray Abbott, another Black photographer, recalled Parks saying. Talent, the ASMP argued, transcended race. DeCarava was blunt in his response: “The main subject is what are we going to do about giving Negroes jobs? Mr. Wolf talked about ‘lousy portfolios’ and ‘lousy photographers’ but lousy photographers are working—they happen to be white. As a principle of democracy, I would like very much to see some lousy Negro photographers work.”
At the end of the meeting, Kamoinge, according to Draper, vowed to “do for self,” echoing a phrase popularized by Elijah Muhammad, the cofounding leader of the Nation of Islam, who suggested that Black people did not need white people to do what they could do for themselves. And so they went ahead and worked on their own terms, producing distinct oeuvres that, taken together, offer a window into the generation in which they came of age, one bookended by the Harlem Renaissance on one side and the March on Washington on the other. Their stated objective was straightforward: to offer a different image of Black life.
This is as true in the case of Draper and Kamoinge as it is in that of See in Black, a collective founded this summer in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of police. Their mode of engagement is primarily through the sale of prints from Black photographers, with which they raise funds to support the “five pillars of Black advancement”: civil rights, arts and education, intersectionality, community building, and criminal-justice reform. In late August, news broke that New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art (where the Kamoinge show is to travel) had cheaply acquired prints from See in Black’s first auction, intending to include the photographs in an exhibition of work by artists who participated in projects responding to this year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations as well as to the pandemic. Allegations of exploitation from the collective and contributing photographers were fierce and swift, leading to the immediate cancellation of the exhibition, which was to have been titled “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change.” See in Black had endured the same travesty Kamoinge was formed to protest, only with a small twist: Where the older collective was excluded from the mainstream art world, the newer one was included with a perverse logic, their photographs obtained at significantly discounted prices to bolster institutional credibility. In the decades since Kamoinge’s founding, a “different image of Black life” has become desirable to white gatekeepers, and yet the artists who toil to make that image find themselves continually undermined, underpaid, and instrumentalized.
Regardless, Kamoinge’s enduring and irreducible legacy lies in the photographs made by its members, each one a monument to Black visibility. I recall now that the first Kamoinge photograph I encountered had been taken by Ming Smith, the only woman featured in “Working Together.” It’s a photograph she made in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 1972. A teenage girl bearing a tray of saucers on her head rests her hands on a balustrade and looks to the side. There is a rush of floral and solid patterns: on her wrapper, her sleeveless blouse, and her headdress, as well as on the balustrade covered in alternating tiles. I am drawn to the quiet of her poise, to her absorption, a stillness whose counterpoint is the tray she bears and the cramped diagonals of the interior. Perhaps this stairwell is a detour from the raucous street from which she has taken shelter. Everyday African life is often presented in images either bustling with chaos or varnished with soapy optimism. But this is atypical and delicate, perfect in its symmetry and its unpretentious humanity.