Light Work is a widely esteemed nonprofit photography organization located in Syracuse, New York. Artist residencies, exhibitions, and the regularly published Contact Sheet have been among its contributions to the photo community since 1973. For a week during August 1995 and again for a week in August 1996, Louis Draper was an artist-in-residence there, working on his New Jersey Arts series.
In Contact Sheet 88 (1996) five artist portraits are published from this body of work. And a simple quote from Draper: “I’m hoping to catch some of the spirit of the artist in his/her environment.”
“Bernarda Bryson Shahn, painter. (Former wife of Ben Shahn)” c. 1994-96, from the New Jersey Artists series
And in Contact Sheet 117 (2002), Draper is noted in memoriam, with this portrait of painter, Hughie Lee-Smith:
“Hughie Lee-Smith, painter,” c. 1994-96, from the New Jersey Artists series
“Photographers can be invited into the lives of strangers, and sometimes they locate and describe the meaning of community and the formation of character, like the photographs of Lou Draper.” —Contact Sheet 88, JH
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:
Hughie Lee-Smith, circa 1990
We are discovering Draper was a remarkable portraitist. He did some generic head-shot work, as many photographers do, but the portraits of his contemporaries–artists, writers, dancers, etc–stand out among the works we’ve been finding. Here are two images of the painter, Hughie Lee-Smith.
Lee-Smith (1915-1999) attended the Cleveland Institute of Art and moved to New York in 1958 (a year after Draper) to teach at the Art Students League, where he taught for 15 years. The earlier portrait is likely from the early 60s.
Hughie Lee-Smith, circa 1960
All this information is sourced from the Lee-Smith Wikipedia page, where it also notes, “In 1963 Lee-Smith became an associate member of the National Academy of Design, then the second African-American to be elected to the Academy.”