The VMFA Highlights Draper, Again

In conjunction with their Deborah Willis curated exhibition, Posing Beauty, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has compiled works by African-American artists from their own permanent collection entitled Identity Shifts. Among those works are several Louis Draper photographs, acquired by the VMFA in 2013 under the direction of Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sarah Eckhardt.

From the VMFA press room:

“Since the museum’s founding in 1936, VMFA has actively collected work by African American artists. In conjunction with Posing Beauty, this collection-based display will feature works by African American artists that use representations of the human figure or some aspect of the body (including hair) to explore how we construct and perceive personal and cultural identity. The selection of paintings and sculptures from the 1970s to the present features an array of perspectives and styles that underscore the complex factors informing conceptions of race and gender. Many of the 21stcentury artists – such as iona rozeal brown, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Robert Pruitt – mix national, international, historical, and pop culture references with personal stylistic preferences to produce images that provoke more questions about identity than they answer. The selection of photographs offers a survey of 20thto 21st century work – from James VanDerZee to Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas – while also highlighting the work of lesser known artists, such as Richmond native Louis Draper, who played a primary role in founding the first African American photography collective, Kamoinge, in New York in 1963. Many of these works will be on view at VMFA for the first time.”

Here are some images included in the Identity Shifts exhibition:

Draper.0055 Draper.0061

Bronx, 1975

Bronx, 1975


Fannie Lou Hamer


Fannie Lou Hamer was a political activist from Montgomery County, Mississippi. She spent much of her time working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group of students who worked together against the racial injustice in Mississippi. In 1964 she went on to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer ran for Congress in 1965 but was not elected.

Fannie Lou Hamer was interviewed for the October 1971 issue of Essence magazine in an article titled “Fannie Lou Hamer Speaks Out” which featured images by Draper.

Click on the article images to enlarge





Kamoinge, Part 3: Camera Magazine


The July, 1966 issue (no. 7) of the esteemed Camera Magazine featured a portfolio of images from the Kamoinge Workshop entitled, “Harlem.” This was a meaningful opportunity for Kamoinge, which is said to have been initiated by then-editor R.E. Martinez, presumably after coming through the brownstone gallery space in Harlem, which he is documented as having done.

Camera Magazine was an admired and acclaimed “international magazine for photography and cinematography” based in Switzerland that commenced in 1922 and lasted some 60 years. (It has apparently just resurfaced again in 2013, see here.) It was Camera’s 45th year when Kamoinge appeared in its pages.

The planning of the Camara feature was done with one editor, but as often happens in journalism, a switch happened mid-stream, and it was the new editor, Allan Porter, that finished managing the piece. Apparently Porter had a very different take on the photography being presented than had been previously discussed with Kamoinge members. The portfolio, with an image by Louis Draper featured on the cover, was controversially (to Kamoinge) titled “Harlem” and subtitled: “A photographic report on Harlem by a group of young negro photographers: their point of view, their people, their daily life.”

The title and introductory commentary by Porter both framed the Kamoinge photographs, which included work by several members: Draper, Ernest Dunkley, James Mannas, Herbert Randall, Beuford Smith, Shawn Walker and Calvin Wilson, as being an exposé of the “real take” on the Harlem so often portrayed at the time in mainstream media. (Context: this was at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, with the Harlem riot of 1964 in recent memory, and coincidentally Porter was Camera’s first American editor, giving him a presumably very specific American perception of the positioning of certain race relations perhaps unlikely to be shared by a non-American editor.)

An excerpt from Porter’s introduction which refers to all four portfolios of that Camera issue, including Kamoinge’s:

“All the photographers were personally involved in their subject, and their views are subjective for reasons of personal, racial, national or religious identification. This tends to make the visual portrayal less sensational reportage and more of a personal statement; above all, in each case the camera observes not as a curious outsider peeping through keyholes and pointing a finger, but as an insider, as part of the life it observes.”

pg. 18-19, Camera Magazine, July, 1966, Issue 7, photograph by Louis Draper

pg. 18-19, Camera Magazine, July, 1966, Issue 7, photograph by Louis Draper

However, not all the included Kamoinge photographs were taken in Harlem. Many were taken across the US, and certainly not all, if any, of the photographers were living in Harlem at the time. Kamoinge had shortly operated out of the 139th Street brownstone but that was really the only concrete Harlem point of reference to be made.

Kamoinge members were apparently not pleased with the new positioning of their portfolio and wrote a post script that was published along with the photos:

“The Kamoinge Workshop is composed of black photographers whose involvement with their medium has brought them together to communicate the conditions they see and feel around them. The point of view expressed by these photographers is personal and individual, and their treatment of technical and aesthetic problems when dealing with aspects of the human condition is often radically different to the established approach. They come together to exchange ideas, to forge ahead with their contemporaries and to speak the truth as they see it through their work. The Kamoinge Workshop see Harlem as a state of mind, whether it exists in Watts in California, the south side of Chicago, Alabama, or New York.”

As for Draper’s contributions, along with the cover image entitled John Henry, he had two other images in the portfolio, one of a dapper black man on the street in the garment district of New York City, and another of a woman of color in a leopard-print dress crossing the street in what looks to be the Lower East Side. A powerful poem by Draper was also included to begin the set of images, as seen in the below scan.


In the book New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement (ed. by Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford), Erina Duganne devotes a chapter section on Kamoinge’s Camera Magazine portfolio entitled “Insiders and Outsiders: The Kamoinge Workshop’s ‘Harlem’ Portfolio.” (pages 190-204) Duganne interviewed Draper to discover that he did not personally know any of his subjects in the Harlem portfolio, and that with the John Henry image in particular (taken in the Lower East Side) he recalled feeling a sense of fear or concern that the man would be angry at being photographed. Duganne says “Draper’s anxiety with respect to his subjects undermines Porter’s assumption that the racial background of the members of Kamoinge necessarily predisposed them to intimately knowing the black subjects of their photographs.” (page 193) And later she puts it poignantly, “Rather than separate their art from their lived experiences, the members of Kamoinge used their photographs to explore the ways in which they informed and complicated one another.” (page 197)

Even with varying perceptions of the Camera Magazine portfolio, the piece gave a certain visibility and professional validation to the Kamoinge Workshop and its members, and was presumably the first case of a group of African-American photographers’ work being highlighted in the magazine for photographers all over the world to see.


Coming soon: Kamoinge, Part 4…the 1970s

Katherine Dunham

Louis Draper made connections with many influential people over the years. Fellow photographers, painters, sculptors, writers and political activists were all apart of his community. Finding this portrait of Katherine Dunham was a great joy, but certainly not a surprise considering Draper’s mission as a photographer and activist.

Katherine Dunham, 1960s, Gelatin silver print

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was a groundbreaking dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and political activist. She founded the Dunham Dance Company in Chicago in 1937. After moving to New York City in 1939 the company began performing on Broadway and touring all over the world. Dunham’s techniques influenced alumni like Alvin Ailey and Ertha Kitt. Around this time the Dunham School of Art and Theater (also known as the Dunham School of Arts and Research) was founded. Prior to teaching dance, Dunham went to school to pursue a degree in anthropology. She spent extensive time in the Caribbean, specifically Haiti, working on her ethnographic study of dance. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a BA in social anthropology.

Dunham and her company faced significant discrimination and unfair treatment while touring. In this video Dunham discusses one of the most memorable moments of touring:

An Introductory Word

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.

Please stay tuned, subscribe to the blog and help us by sharing this story if you can.

Thank you for stopping by! —Gordon Stettinius