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


Lou at Light Work

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 Shan, painter. (Former wife of Ben Shann)" c. 1994-96, from the New Jersey Artists series

“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. 1996, from the New Jersey Artists series

“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

A few thoughts from Draper about his work:

“The subjects I shoot, the people, the animate and the inanimate are not mine to exploit as some people in the arts do, but rather they are the medium of my expression. If I exploit them, I exploit myself.”


“I am concerned primarily with photography’s questioning and re-examination of my environment. I think that is the gift that I, as a photographic artist, should give to my audience.”


“Expressing yourself is really a bi-product of expressing your subject. In expressing subject there is a coming together of those experiences that shape you and cause you to select a particular kind of material with which to work.”