In 1973, a group of 14 New York photographers huddled into a photo studio on West 18th Street in Manhattan, posing in front of a Hasselblad camera for a group shot authored by Anthony Barboza, who stands smiling in the picture.
“I remember arranging the lighting and then my assistant took the photo,” said Barboza to the Guardian. “It’s a photo of a family. That’s what it is. A family photo.”
It shows the members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of black photographers who formed in 1963 to document black culture in Harlem, and beyond, from live jazz concerts to portraits of Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Grace Jones, as well as the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.
A selection of over 100 photos by the group are on view in a survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, which runs until 28 March.
“The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social unrest, as ours is at this point,” said Whitney curator Carrie Springer (this traveling exhibition from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is curated by Sarah Eckhardt)
“Looking at how they centered their artwork on depicting the community as they experienced it is inspiring, at a time like now,” said Springer. “Their self-organizing work in their community represents an individual and collective truth, one which is focused on the power art can have in communities.”
The Kamoinge (pronounced kom-wean-yeh) collective all started in 1963, when a group of 14 black New York photographers came together to form a group, to trade skills and offer critiques to one another. They chose “Kamoinge,” as it means “a group of people acting together” in Kenya’s Gikuyu language. They worked to tell black stories by depicting black communities, from local neighbors to superstars, and saw their rise around the same time as the Black Arts Movement. Kamoinge photographer Adger Cowans, who is 84, always believed the group could show the truth of black lives, more so than an outsider. The goal has always been to “show people in a positive light”.
“When I wasn’t shooting commercial work in the studio, I was shooting out in the streets, using what I learned from the teachings of Roy DeCarava and the other photographers in Kamoinge,” said Barboza. “We all learned from each other. They were my greatest mentors.”
The group supported each other with critiques, debates and often ventured out to shoot together like a family, while also shooting alone too. “I did a lot of portraits of black artists and musicians in my spare time,” said Barboza who photographed Michael Jackson at 21, as well as James Baldwin and Gordon Parks.
Nine of the 14 original artists are alive today, working and living in New York, including Beuford Smith, Ming Smith and Herb Randall. After the first 20 years, the group reorganized as Kamoinge Inc, and expanded to include membership and nonprofit status, and continues today, 60 years since first founding.
As one of the group’s members Ray Francis said in 1982: “We were a group that stars fell on,” and credit observational photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange as influences. Another member, Ming Smith, calls it: “Making something out of nothing. I think that’s like jazz.”
The Whitney exhibition is organized into five sections, including one community-focused section, which details the day to day life of people in the city, at work, play and travel. Another section is focused on music, as jazz has been a prime influence in the group. “There’s a lot of poetry in those images, jazz musicians were their subjects and their inspiration,” said Springer.
There are also sections devoted to abstraction and surrealism, civil rights, depicting figures in the movement, and one global section, focusing on African diasporic communities, as the photographers traveled to Cuba, Senegal and Jamaica to shoot, as well as the South.
“They were photographers committed to photography as an art form,” said Springer. “It’s hard for some people to remember in the early 1960s, photography wasn’t widely thought of as an art form. It wasn’t as generally accepted as an art form. It speaks more poetically than a documentary photo.”
Harlem-born photographer, Shawn Walker, one of the group’s founding members, is showing a photo depicting two dapper men in white suits and hats on Easter Sunday in Harlem, dated 1972. “I would go to the churches and after everyone came out of mass, I’d go to 125th Street to lurk at everyone hawking off all their new wares,” he said. “Those guys wearing white were waiting in line for a Polaroid photo. It was trying to show people proud of their culture by dressing up.”
According to Walker, 125th Street was the hotspot to shoot. “It was the main drag, a shopping area with meat markets, everything,” said Walker. “For me, I shot from 5th Avenue to 8th Avenue, it wasn’t river to river, but it was close.
“I would hang out around Hotel Theresa, even now if you’re not doing anything and you hang out in that area, you’re bound to come home with some photos. “Even if I’m coming home from shopping and I have an extra 30 minutes, I’ll grab a seat and watch people come by and start shooting.”
It has been a tough year for Walker. “I caught the virus and lost a leg, but I’m alive,” he says.
Today, Walker shoots with a pocket-sized Canon camera. “I didn’t use a lot of heavy gear or be obvious,” he said. “It was about trying to get a good photo without them noticing me. It’s about how we as black folks viewed ourselves, it was about culture and anthropology, I consider myself a cultural anthropologist.”
Shooting 40 years ago in Harlem isn’t the same as today, however. “Now people ask: ‘why you take my picture?’” he says. “People are much more aware of who you are and what you’re doing. In the 1970s, I could stroll into Spanish Harlem and take pictures.”
Ming Smith was the group’s first female member. She recently said in an interview: “Being a black woman photographer was like being nobody,” explaining that: “It was just my camera and me. I worked to capture black culture, the richness, the love. That was my incentive. It wasn’t like I was going to make money from it, or fame – not even love, because there were no shows.”
While today, the black gaze in photography is increasingly being accepted by the art world, with major books and retrospectives, that wasn’t always the case. “A lot of people thought things changed after Martin Luther King Jr, but they didn’t change, we have black mayors and politicians, but racism is still there,” said Walker.
The photos in the exhibition aren’t restricted to just New York. There’s a photo by Herbert Randall of a woman in Palmers Crossing, a neighborhood of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, shedding light on a community of volunteers involved in the Freedom Summer project, which helped increase black voter registration.
As Barboza says, the key to a good portrait is not necessarily technical savviness, but to convey emotion, a feeling. It isn’t about over-thinking anything.
To sum up the theme that ties all the Kamoinge members’ photos together into one movement, is simple. “There’s a quiet, spiritual feeling from the photographs,” said Barboza. “It’s beauty. I call it ‘the eye dreaming’.”