Kamoinge, Part I: Origins

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Kamoinge Workshop group photo, NYC, 1974. Draper front row and center.

In the fall of 1963, two groups of black photographers, Group 35 and Kamoinge met at one of the member’s 7th Avenue Manhattan studio. Louis Draper was a member of both groups.

The two groups decided to meld into one, under the name Kamoinge Workshop. Kamoinge is an East African word meaning “a group of people working together,” which Draper gleaned from reading “Facing Mount Kenya” by Jomo Kenyetta. The group of 12 or so photographers “formed because it signified a possible way out of the photographic isolation we each felt individually.”

Other members of the newly-formed group (not a comprehensive list): Ray Francis, Herman Howard, Earl James, Calvin Mercer, Herb Randall, Al Fennar, and Jimmie Mannas, Shawn Walker, Adger Cowans, Larry Stewart. (Later members would include Tony Barboza, Ming Smith, and Beuford Smith.)

As Draper put it, “The Kamoinge Workshop…represents 15 black photographers whose creative objectives reflect a concern for the truth about the world, about the society, and about themselves.”

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November 1963

The group invited Roy DeCarava to be their Director, as he was the most seasoned of the photographers and specifically “to give the group a focus.” DeCarava’s legendary book, Sweet Flypaper of Life, published in 1955, paired his photographs with the prose of Langston Hughes. He was the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2006 was awarded the National Medal of the Arts.

Early in its formation, several Kamoinge members attended a local American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) meeting “to address the issue of unfair reporting of Black Life and hiring discrimination by its members and clients.” Draper notes the atmosphere was a hostile one. Apparently Gordon Parks Sr. made favorable remarks about ASMP which prompted him and DeCarava to get a little heated. Ultimately, “Kamoinge left this gathering vowing to do for Self.” (This is an account of the affair by Draper.)

It was a thunderous way to start the new endeavor, and lends credence to the dual intention behind Kamoinge: as artists striving to be in “contact with self” and as a group “set out to create the kind of images of our communities that spoke the truth we’d witnessed and that countered the untruths we’d all seen in mainline publications.”

At this point it’s extremely important to remember the context of the time period. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. At polar ends of the tenuous socio-political spectrum were Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers. There were riots, demonstrations, integration (by law and force), marches, and a blooming of black cultural pride: Black is beautiful, Black Power. Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun had just debuted on Broadway in 1959.

Draper makes the historical positioning of the Kamoinge Workshop quite clear: “This was at the height of civil unrest across the country and a year before the massive civil resistance in Harlem.”

Stay tuned for Kamoinge, Part II, highlighting the group’s early exhibitions, notable relationships, and some of the internal struggles that developed for the group.

Note: All quotes are the words of Louis Draper, taken from his archive texts.

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Draper and Langston Hughes

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Louis Draper met Langston Hughes in 1961 when he became a tenant in Hughes’ brownstone in Harlem. Over time Hughes became a mentor to Draper, inroducing him to many artists and prominent contributors of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes often shared books on Black History, Africa and black culture with Draper. He also shared his insight and knowledge on writing which inspired Draper to pursue his own interest in writing screenplays.

Hughes’ experiences among the camaraderie of black writers and artists during the Harlem Renaissance possibly inspired Draper to take similar action toward creating an organization of black photographers that would promote their voices and work. Kamoinge was formed in 1963. (More to come on Kamoinge!)

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(Thanks to Cheryl Pelt for her contributions to this post.)