Getty Museum opens marvelous Kamoinge Workshop photography show

Edward Steichen’s 1955 documentary photography exhibition The Family of Man for New York’s Museum of Modern Art was extremely popular with audiences and met with sharply divided critical responses.

Some loved the show, which aimed to show similarities between different people around the world, as did the general public during an unprecedented eight-year tour of 37 countries around the world. (An estimated nine million people have seen it.) Others haven’t.

From left, French essayist Roland Barthes dismissed the vast collection of more than 500 photographs from 68 countries as “conventional humanism.” At the other end of the spectrum, New York critic Hilton Kramer dismissed documentary imagery as “a smug means of obscuring the urgency of real issues.”

Many photographers were dismayed. Walker Evans, a pivotal American artist in the development of the documentary tradition central to Steichen’s selection, complained of “false cordiality” – a celebration of fake sentimentality.

A group shot of men and women with a man pointing a camera at the camera

Anthony Barboza, “Kamoinge Members”, 1973, printed 2019; inkjet printing.

(Anthony Barboza)

Louis Draper, on the other hand, was thrilled. Still a student at Virginia State University, a historically black school half an hour south of his hometown of Richmond, and not yet a photographer, he devoured the exhibition catalogue. As a reporter for the school newspaper, he soon began to take photographs. Before graduating, he relocated to New York to immerse himself in the media capital’s burgeoning photographic world.

We can be glad he did. At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop is a compelling exhibition that showcases the artist’s powerful influence along with more than a dozen of his colleagues. Superbly organized by Sarah L. Eckhardt of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and overseen at the Getty by Associate Curator Mazie Harris, it charts a pivotal artistic development in the second half of the 20th century that has languished in the shadows for too long. Eckhardt’s richly illustrated catalog is excellent.

The Kamoinge workshop is the name of a dedicated if loosely affiliated group of 14 black photographers, most of whom Draper rounded up in 1963. A group photo taken ten years ago by Anthony Barboza gives a hint of their ongoing plan: Posed against a plain studio backdrop, the artists are alongside a view of ladders, lights and an exit sign to the right, a pointed reference to prolific daily work out in the world.

The massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which rallied after brutal attacks on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, used the centenary of emancipation to protest deep-rooted racial inequality. That same year, the African nation of Kenya made headlines when it liberated itself from nearly half a century of British colonial incursion. The intersection between America’s own colonial history and an emerging African consciousness during the civil rights movement is anchored in the choice of the workshop’s name.

A photograph of the outlines of a person's head and back

C. Daniel Dawson, “Backscape #1”, 1967, Gelatin silver print

(C Daniel Dawson)

Kamoinge, pronounced by Draper’s group “cow-moyn-gay” was a Kikuyu word in Kenya. Bantu pronunciations differ, but it means ‘a group of people working together and acting’. The workshop was put together by Draper, who died in 2002, as well as Albert R. Fennar (1938-2018), James M. Mannas Jr. and Herbert Randall. They were soon joined by ten other artists.

Some of the Kamoinge workshop photographers were officially trained in this medium, others were self-taught. Everyone followed their own work and supported and encouraged each other. They often got together on Sundays to criticize and socialize. But the only agenda was to recognize both their individual autonomy as artists and their collective awareness of the black community.

The exhibition is large – around 200 photographs, all black and white, mostly from the first two decades of the workshop. The lack of color reflects a general tendency in the 1960s and 1970s to separate photographs into two camps: color was on the rise, but the expense and complications of production kept its use mainly in the commercial sphere; Black and white was for serious art.

More importantly, the thriving commercial imagery was an antagonist that the Kamoinge workshop sought to refute. In the mass media, the white perception of black life dominates. These observations were not always wrong, but they were inevitably limited, repetitive, and marginalizing. The Kamoinge workshop emphasized disparate representation.

A black and white photograph of a salt pile with sky and clouds in the background.

Albert Fennar, “Heaps of Salt”, 1971; gelatin silver print.

(Miya Fennar and the Albert R. Fennar Archive)

In Draper’s 1971 portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, the face of the indomitable Mississippi suffrage activist fills the frame and looks straight into the camera lens. She is an unshakeable force, not intimidating or angry, but intense and determined.

C. Daniel Dawson stepped in to photograph a black body of indeterminate gender lying on a bed, a composition in three registers from bottom to top: the view of a sheet, the curved bulge of a shoulder, and the back of the head. An anonymous but intimate figure hovers between landscape and abstraction.

An aerial view of three people walking down the street stretches their shadows from the low angle of a setting sun at the end of the day. Adger Cowans rotated the print 90 degrees, the elongated shadows now rising instead of spreading, transforming the trio into striding titans.

In “Pensacola, Florida,” Barboza portrayed a broken neon sign on a ramshackle building. At the heart of the sign, the word “Liberty” is broken, the “e” is shattered, and the “r” dangles askew.

A portrait of a man standing in front of a window and three American flags

Ming Smith, “America Seen Through Stars and Stripes, New York City, New York,” circa 1976; gelatin silver print.

(ming smith)

Because abstraction was a conflicting subject for painters and sculptors of the time and presented particular hurdles for camerawork, Fennar photographed from below a huge roadside “pile of salt” covered with tarps. Its patterned surface offers a mysterious mountain of abstract shapes beneath gently floating clouds.

“America Seen Through Stars and Stripes, New York City, New York” is a multi-layered visual collage of dizzying spaces by Ming Smith. A man in a white lab coat stands in front of a glass office building with his arms folded behind his back, his mirrored sunglasses reflecting what is in front of him – including the apparent artist – as surely as the window reflects urban passers-by and cars parked on the street behind the photographer. Woven into the random, free-floating activity, hanging American flags or banners behind the glass window provide a solid structure and a sense of confinement.

These are not images of black life as brutal, demoralized and tense. They are also not sunny courting. Instead, a simple dignity due to every person is the visual baseline; enlightening human experience in America is the endeavor.

What the Kamoinge Workshop faced is revealed in a disturbing case containing the infamous Newsweek cover dated August 3, 1964, following riots in Harlem, NY after an off-duty white police officer shot and killed an African American teenager on Manhattan’s Upper East Side . The magazine’s white photographers didn’t venture into the downtown chaos, and no black artists were hired to illustrate the upcoming story. Freelancer Roy DeCarava, now the most famous of the Kamoinge photographers, was hired to provide a suitable image.

A photo of three walking people casting long shadows

Adger Cowans, “Three Shadows”, 1966 (printed 1968); gelatin silver print.

(Adger Cowans, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

DeCarava asked fellow Workshop members Ray Francis (1937–2006), Shawn Walker, and Draper to pose, and he photographed their serious faces in close-up with their heads in a syncopated row, much like the stone presidential faces lined up over Mt. Rushmore are. However, when the magazine came out, the photo was cropped, with the misleading caption “Harlem: Hatred in the Streets” underneath it. The archetypal white fear of the angry black was splattered across newsstands and dropped in letterboxes coast to coast. DeCarava, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, turned down commissions from Newsweek for the rest of his life.

The Kamoinge Workshop fused two artistic legacies in the distinctive context of an oppressed minority community. Traditional African art represents a social project, while American contemporary art embodies a more solitary pursuit, with the artist working alone in the studio and darkroom. Not everything was ideal. Smith, for example, was the only woman in the group, and she didn’t join until almost a decade had passed. The casual sexism of the era is undeniable.

But also the power of the art produced by the photographers of the Kamoinge workshop. Draper has prolifically devoured The Family of Man, and this show and its catalog have insightful and sometimes unexpected lessons to be learned and enjoyments to be had. And “false heart” is nowhere to be found.

“Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop”

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood

When: Open from Tuesday to Sunday, until October 9th

Entry: Free; Parking $10-$20

The information: (310) 440-7300, getty.edu

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-28/kamoinge-workshop-photographers-getty-museum Getty Museum opens marvelous Kamoinge Workshop photography show

Sarah Ridley

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