November 30, 2023

It was only relatively recently that the mainstream art world, which likes to think of itself as progressive, has fully embraced the idea that black art is important. Just a few decades ago, when you were an African-American artist, you could realistically expect your work to be excluded from large – ie white-run – museums. For you, there was no marketing machinery that makes a career. Galleries didn’t show you. Collectors didn’t buy you. Critics weren’t looking your way.

The same art world is now in catch-up mode, “discovering” black talent that has always been there and recognizing rich stories that have previously been ignored. At the top of the list of recent retrospective digs is “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop,” a traveling exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art that’s beautiful in every way.

African American photographers were plentiful in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but no widespread outlets for their work. With a few exceptions – Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks – popular magazines and newspapers didn’t discontinue them. And when they did, it was often with the requirement that they provide predetermined views of black life in images of idealized elevation or impoverished dysfunction. The idea that their work as art could be off the news rarely came up.

In 1963, a group of African-American photographers with different backgrounds, interests, and sentiments joined forces in New York City to offer themselves and future colleagues what the art world did not: exhibition venues, a collection base, and a source of constructive criticism. The galleries were located in Harlem, far from the city’s commercial art districts. The collectors were primarily the artists themselves. And criticism often took the form of mutual feedback given during the jazz studio dinner. These meetings could be controversial – opinions were strong; The ego was hurt – but a common goal of promoting solidarity was established.

The group, called the Kamoinge Workshop, was formed by four artists, Louis H. Draper (1935-2002), Albert R. Fennar (1938-2018), James M. Mannas Jr. and Herbert Randall, some of whom were members from another, slightly earlier Harlem-based collective, Gallery 35. Other photographers soon joined, and the Whitney Show, which spans the group’s first two decades, includes work by 14 early members. Some were academically trained, others were self-taught. Most of them have held their own as photojournalists with freelance jobs and teaching positions. The important thing is that none of them drew an absolute line between photojournalism and art, “reality” and what you could make of it in terms of value.

The exhibition is organized by Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art, organized at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and supervised by Carrie Springer and Mia Matthias at the Whitney. But none of the themes – politics, music, abstraction, community – are airtight. They overlap, interweave.

The word “kamoinge” – pronounced kom-wean-yeh – means “a group of people who act together” in the Kikuyu language in Kenya. As a group name, it is a response to a time when the civil rights movement of the United States and the post-colonial African independence movements ran parallel and shaped black consciousness internationally.

Africa is very present on the show. These are photos of street life in Dakar, Senegal, taken by Anthony Barboza and Ming Smith, the only early female member of the group, in the early 1970s – both commercially and by themselves. And it is there in the work of Kamoinge photographers traveling across the continent’s global diaspora: Herbert Howard in Guyana; Herb Robinson in Jamaica, where he was born; and Shawn Walker in Cuba, where he stayed long enough to be blacklisted as a radical when he returned to New York.

That was in 1968, during a decade when racial politics in the United States was constantly on the brink, and Kamoinge was there for just that. Adger Cowans reported on Malcolm X’s funeral in Harlem in 1965. Herbert Randall had been to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer last year. And three Kamoinge regulars – Draper, Ray Francis, and Walker – appeared nameless and in close-up on a cover photo for a 1964 edition of Newsweek above the headline, “Harlem: Hate on the Streets.”

The photo was commissioned by DeCarava in Harlem after the police murder of a black teenager sparked a riot in the neighborhood. There he met three young Kamoinge artists whom he all knew; he himself was a member of the group at the time. He and the white art director he was traveling with asked her to pretend to be “angry”. They did; DeCarava got his shot. Everyone involved was amused by the incident, but it clearly illustrated the kind of functional, message-bound imagery that Kamoinge was trying to expand.

If racial politics in its many forms was a collective burden on the group, music was a joyful cultural binder. Many members compared photography to jazz: once you understood your technique, you could improvise endlessly and become abstract. Some of the most beautiful of the more than 140 pictures in the series show admired musicians: Ming Smith’s picture of Sun Ra as a blurred cast of gold-colored fabric that shimmers like a mist; Herb Robinson’s portrait of Miles Davis as a glowing melt of shadow and light.

It makes sense that Kamoinge members continued to work extensively in black and white during the two decades covered by the show. Cost was undoubtedly a factor: black and white was much cheaper than color. It also left them in the tradition of respected older photographers such as James VanDerZee and Marvin and Morgan Smith. And it gave them the opportunity to include a wide range of art-historical influences: the ghostly evocation of art from the deep past in C. Daniel Dawson’s haunting multiple-exposure image of his young goddaughter’s faces imposed on an Egyptian sculpture; Rembrandt’s penumbral gaze at Walker’s work; the high-contrast abstraction of Japanese painting and Japanese film by Fennar.

Abstraction – Beuford Smith’s self-portrait as a shadow cast on falling water; Draper’s image of cloth hanging on a clothesline resembling Ku Klux Klan hoods is indeed the show’s differentiator. The choice of abstraction made Kamoinge artists deviate from documentary depictions of the Afro-American community without completely leaving them and their political realities behind. Through abstraction, artists can keep the image of black life inventively complicated in a society and art world that wanted – and still wants – to pin it down.

And in the end there is something interesting about the show itself, made up of 14 different personalities. Dr. Eckhardt’s carefully researched, archive-based catalog, which Draper particularly highlights, is of great help in this way. This is how the photos are selected for display. You can see the eye and hand of individual manufacturers in a room.

And then there are the faces in Barboza’s headshots by the early Kamoinge team. He produced the portraits in 1972 as a limited portfolio and that year gave each artist colleague a copy of the set as a Christmas present. What a gift! He made them all look like stars. No surprise. They were and are. (Nine of them are still working hard today.) The only surprise is that we now only acknowledge their charisma

Working together: The photographers of the Kamoinge workshop

Until March 28, Whitney Museum of American Art, (212) 570-3600. The exhibition travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.