I want to write a few words about how excited I am to be working for the preservation trust of photographer Louis Draper. Last week, I and two of my interns went to Charlottesville to remove all of Draper’s work from the special collections at University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. I had to borrow a Chevrolet Battleship (a.k.a. a Suburban) for the task as this is a fairly large archive including papers, manuscripts, lessons, photo equipment alongside of the many boxes of prints and collected works and binders full of negatives and slides. But we now have moved the work safely to Candela’s offices and are beginning this week to create an accurate inventory and to work on preliminary edits of the work.
This is a story that is going to take a long slow while to tell but over the coming months we are going to try to share our experience of discovering and preserving Mr. Draper’s photography and we are going to do what we can to get the word out about this incredible individual. A native Richmonder, Draper moved to New York City in 1957 and, as a young photographer, was a peer to many important figures from New York’s cultural and artistic scenes and eventually became an innovator, educator, as well as a Civil Rights activist. In short, we hope to bring some long overdue recognition to a man who spent his life refining and sharing his knowledge of photography. And it should prove to be exciting for anyone with an interest in 20th c. photography or the Civil Rights movement or photography or New York City photographers or Harlem in particular, or any of a dozen other visual and aesthetic threads that can be found in such an expansive life’s work.
Earlier this year, I met Mrs. Nell Draper-Winston, and her associate, Cheryl Pelt, as they had hoped that I might have interest in looking at the work of Mrs. Winston’s brother Louis, who had passed away in 2002. Since I had published Gita Lenz in 2010, I understood a little about what it meant to work with an extensive photography archive. And to be honest, that project of publishing Gita’s work was a both a personal journey and a major learning experience for me. So I entered the initial conversations with Mrs. Winston with the idea that I might help out if I was able but I wasn’t sure I would be able to take on any kind of active role as a direct representative. I have been offered the opportunity to review a few other photographer’s estates since publishing Gita Lenz but had not, until now, really been excited to the point where I was called to get involved myself.
Malcolm X, 369th Armory, Harlem, 1964
Upon viewing a selection of prints that Mrs. Winston had in her personal collection and beginning to research the span of Draper’s career, from his being a founding member of Kamoinge – a forum dedicated to African-American photographers – to having been a friend and neighbor of Langston Hughes while living in Harlem, to his work documenting Civil Rights issues from the 1960s forward, to his travels abroad to Russia and Senegal and elsewhere. Basically, that first meeting to discuss Draper’s career extended to several longer conversations until I had to admit that I was really enthusiastic about the possibilities found within this work. This is really an exciting research project and for that I want to simply say thanks to Mrs. Winston and Mrs. Pelt for the opportunity to work with them on the Louis Draper preservation trust.
Backing up a little, in 2002 I wandered into a similar opportunity when a friend of mine, Timothy Bartling, introduced me to the photographer Gita Lenz. Gita had been a photographer, mostly from the 1940s through the 1960s and she had experienced a number of notable career highlights. She was in the “Abstraction in Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, curated by Edward Steichen, and she was also in “The Family of Man” exhibition, also at the MoMA and again curated by Steichen as well as many other artistic accomplishments. In short, Gita was a talented and dedicated photographer who worked steadily perfecting her craft for years even while the career she had chosen barely provided a living wage for her. Ultimately, she was forced to take other types of work in the mid-1960s as she was looking for more stability than a career as a photographer could provide.
Gita was dedicated. She was an exceptional printer. She wrote about photography, she wrote about art and abstraction. She was a poet, she was politically involved. She was in her mid-50s by the time she gave up her photography career. Her identity at this point had been altogether tied up in being a visual artist and yet she found it impossible to continue doing what she loved.
Even though we came along some forty years too late, we decided to see if we could do something to augment her legacy. And we did accomplish some nice recognition for Gita ultimately as she lived to see a monograph of her work and even a solo show of her work at Gitterman Gallery in New York. Essentially it was this project that was the genesis of Candela Books, as Gita Lenz was our first published title. Since 2010, we have gone on to publish two other books – Salt & Truth by Shelby Lee Adams and Sunburn by Chris McCaw – and we have opened a gallery space in downtown Richmond, Virginia to feature fine art photography exclusively.
With all of that said, assuming responsibility of Louis Draper’s archive is yet another opportunity for us to learn as we see through the eyes of another accomplished New York photographer, an activist, an African-American artist, a respected educator. And our intention is to share our progress through this blog and the occasional newsletter because we are pretty confident that this project is going to be interesting to a larger audience.
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Thank you for stopping by! —Gordon Stettinius