When the Studio Museum in Harlem presented the work of the Kamoinge workshop in a group show in 1972, it was the first encounter with the group for many art enthusiasts – including a New York Times critic who wrote an article asking the question: Why had’n’t the art world properly recognized the work of these artists before?
Kamoinge, then a 12-member photography collective, was familiar with mainstream media and art spaces that oversaw her work. So instead they took the lead, showing their photos in an unofficial Kamoinge gallery, criticizing each other’s work, putting together portfolios and mentoring young photographers. Their black and white images captured the many experiences of the black community, and their work explored abstraction, street photography, portraiture, and more.
Roy DeCarava photographed stars like Billie Holiday; he was the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 and spent a year photographing Harlem. Herbert Randall photographed the Freedom Summer movement in 1964, capturing the streets of the Lower East Side during that time. Documenting people everywhere from Harlem to Senegal, Ming Smith also snapped heavenly photos of stars like Sun Ra and James Baldwin. Anthony Barboza photographed Harlem in the 1970s, compiled an artist’s book of portraits of Kamoinge members and their art, and captured a still-rising Grace Jones in 1970.
In their photographs, Kamoinge workshop members effortlessly explored different subjects and styles. They resisted media portrayals that cast black communities in a negative light and supported each other in building the collective in their work.
Louis Draper, a founding member of the collective, gained recognition for his photorealism, but also for works such as his 1971 portrait of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer for Essence. He also documented much of the collective’s growth. After Draper’s sister donated the artist’s archive to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) – Draper had studied at Virginia State College – Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, saw the need to share Kamoinge’s story nationally .
“That was one of the most fundamental goals: the idea that these works should be a part of the history of the history of photography – and of American art from that time,” says Eckhardt.
The exhibition of the collective’s work traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it opened in November 2020, and the Cincinnati Art Museum in February 2022, and recently landed at The Getty, its largest venue to date. As Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight brings itWorking Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop is “a compelling exhibition” that captures the importance of the New York-based collective and highlights the work of 14 members who took pictures in the 1960s and 1970s.
“When I came to this collection, I was interested to see that 49% of Getty’s photo collection is American photographers, but about less than 1% of that is by black artists or people of color,” says Mazie Harris, associate curator at the Photographic Department of the Getty Museum. “And I thought, well, this isn’t a very American collection.”
Working Together is the first major exhibition of the collective’s work, but the show’s significance extends beyond the walls of the institution. The members of the collective refuse to be categorized simply as photographers (their work has ranged from documentary to abstract) and their tireless efforts to create their own possibilities have paved the way for the generations of black photographers that have followed them.
“I don’t have to prove to anyone that I’m human in my work,” says Janna Ireland, a Los Angeles-based photographer and assistant professor at Occidental College. “I show my humanity to people who already understand it. But I have that luxury because of the Kamoinge workshop, because of the artists and generations before me who laid the groundwork.” Ireland’s work touches on themes of home and family through portraiture and still life, and her black and white photographs of the black architect Paul R. Williams were published in the book Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View in 2020.
Courtney Coles, a Los Angeles-based photographer, author, and professor, recalls searching for Black image makers as a college student after learning nothing about them in class. Carrie Mae Weems, Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava were important to her because their art captured “real, everyday, ordinary black life” and not trauma or violence.
“Even though they were all aware of what was happening in the world around them, they created that space for them to be soft,” says Coles, who emphasizes that as a black lesbian, photography allows her to create a softness that supports society often does not have. t give her.
Kamoinge member Adger Cowans recalls being at school and noticing that seminal texts like The History of Photography did not include the work of black artists. That knowledge gap to be filled appears to be shifting: Eckhardt says university professors have recently announced that they have included Kamoinge’s art in their curriculum.
Faced with the lack of attention traditional arts institutions gave to the Kamoinge workshop, its members created their own opportunities. It’s an ethos that Black photographers influenced by the Workshop still pursue today. In 2016, Coles and a friend, Erica Lauren, formed the artist collective Forward, focused on female and non-binary artists after being passed on for jobs they wanted. Founding of Los Angeles-based photographer Lorenzo Diggins Jr color block creativea design studio and publishing company so he could do the work he wanted without having to wait for anyone’s approval.
“They walked so I could run,” Diggins says of the Kamoinge artists. “It’s cool that I’m an extension of them in a way.”
The Kamoinge photographers defied stereotypes and generalizations about the black community found in mainstream media, something Diggins and Coles admire. “I craft my own narrative of what the Crenshaw District or South Central is,” says Diggins. “It’s more than ‘Boyz n the Hood’ or ‘Menace II Society.’ It’s actually a beautiful place.”
The legacy of the collective continues; Draper’s archive was recently digitized, and Eckhardt received messages from scholars “who were thrilled that they could access the archive while libraries were closed because it provided them with important historical information.” Harris’ conversations with and research on Barboza will appear in the forthcoming monograph, Eye Dreaming: Photographs by Anthony Barboza. “It’s exciting that the workshop is receiving a significant amount of attention with so many members still alive,” says Ireland.
Today the Kamoinge Workshop has become Kamoinge Inc. with Cowans (also featured in the exhibition) as President. In her research, Harris has also reflected on the work of similar pre-WWII collectives such as the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC) and the Black Photographers of California, founded in 1984. Getty also worked with three community organizations to expand the exhibit’s reach, Venice Arts, Inner-City Arts and LA Commons.
“To see for yourself collectives throughout history who chose themselves before the rest of the world caught up – that’s beautiful and awesome,” says Coles. “You can go further with your friends than alone.”
“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/2022-08-17/kamoinge-workshop-black-photography-collective-getty-new-generation Overlooked Black photo collective influenced a new generation