“And who else is there?” A staff member at a well-known photo festival and I were nearing the end of an awkward conversation. A number of us had publically criticized the festival for its failure to include photographers of Latin American, African, Asian, and Native American descent in its programming. Because the festival was heavily weighted toward photojournalism and documentary photography, images of black and brown bodies, usually in distress, filled the festival’s galleries and projection screens. The contrast between the color of the bodies on display and of the photographers who made the images only emphasized the absence of competing voices and visions.
The staff member, a genuinely decent man, tried to assure me that the festival had done its best to find deserving black photographers to include in its program. They had invited Roy DeCarava, he told me, only to discover that he was too frail to travel. (DeCarava passed away soon afterward.) Gordon Parks was already dead, he said, correctly. “And who else is there?”
It’s a question that never seems to go away, despite having been answered — conclusively, one would think — in countless exhibitions, catalogues, articles, and books over the last several decades. How was it possible for the staff member not to have known about the many other black — and brown and yellow — photographers who have produced significant work?
Invisibility of this sort isn’t accidental, as Ashton Cooper makes clear in her recent article for Hyperallergic, “The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist.” Although she’s concerned with gender, much of her argument applies equally well to artists of color.
The notion that female artists are simply “overlooked” is a myth, Cooper writes. There’s nothing inadvertent about the decisions that people and institutions make to exclude them from the canon. The gatekeeping that’s kept women out of galleries, museums, publications, and histories has to be part of any analysis of female artists. But it’s important, Cooper adds, not to stop with narratives of exclusion and victimhood.
Female artists made art regardless of the forces that were arrayed against them. Cooper wants to know how they did it. What was her life like when “she was toiling away in obscurity. What was she doing then? Where was she showing? Who was she in community with? How did her practice change?”
The great strength of Advancing the Frame, the first joint exhibition by members of the Kamoinge and En Foco photographers’ collectives, is that it does much more than answer the “who else?” question. By showing us what African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American photographers were up to while gatekeepers’ attention was directed elsewhere, it also provides analagous answers to Cooper’s questions.
Organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and currently on view at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Advancing the Frame presents nearly 80 works by 45 artists. The photographs that curators C. Daniel Dawson, Robert G. O’Meally, and Diedra Harris-Kelley have selected from En Foco’s permanent collection and the personal archives of Kamoinge’s members erase any notion that either collective has a house style. The photographs often defy easy categorization, blending forms and techniques with purposeful abandon.
The exhibition, however, is more than an opportunity to evaluate the work of individual artists. It’s a celebration of the strength and endurance of the organizations that nurtured them.
Kamoinge and En Foco emerged out of the cultural ferment generated by civil rights struggles in the 1960s and ’70s. Kamoinge (a Gikuyu word meaning “those who work in concert”), founded in 1963 by a group of New York–based African American photographers, is the older of the two collectives by a decade. From the beginning, its aims were both artistic and broadly political. In their history of the organization, early members Louis Draper and Anthony Barboza define Kamoinge’s “essential purpose” as “challenging one another to higher photographic attainment … in the face of a largely hostile and at best indifferent photographic community.” Kamoinge also confronted a mainstream visual culture that all too often reduced African Americans to demeaning stereotypes. Its members would “speak of our lives as only we can,” as Draper later put it.
A trio of Nuyorican photographers founded En Foco (In Focus) in a Bronx apartment in 1974. Like Kamoinge, the new collective wanted to challenge mainstream representations of its community and at the same time support its members’ artistic development. The founders were also determined to democratize photography, taking it out of galleries and museums and into the bodegas, banks, libraries, and schools of their neighborhoods. Both collectives began as men’s clubs but have long since opened their ranks to women. En Foco has expanded far beyond its Nuyorican roots, embracing all photographers of color.
Over the years, En Foco has become larger and more institutionalized than Kamoinge, which, while adding new faces, has remained small enough to hold its meetings in members’ homes. En Foco’s institutional structure has allowed it to assemble the nation’s largest collection of photographs by US-based photographers of Asian, African, Latino, and Native American descent and to publish Nueva Luz, a journal that showcases work by photographers of color and provides a forum for reviews and conversations about the medium.
Advancing the Frame is by no means a small exhibition, but even so it can’t hope to present a comprehensive overview of the work that members of the two collectives have produced over the last five decades. Instead the curators have highlighted ways in which members work in and across a wide range of styles and genres.
The earliest photograph in the show, George Malave’s “Boy with Dead Bird” (1969), from the series Varet Street, predates the birth of En Foco by five years. Lyrical and mildly surreal, it’s firmly embedded in the tradition of American street photography. The most recent photograph on display, Ruddy Roye‘s “Shrine,” is a 2014 image from Ferguson, Missouri, that captures the sorrow, bewilderment, and anger that the town’s residents felt after the police killing of Michael Brown.
Roye’s politically alert reportage is something of an outlier in Advancing the Frame. Although many of the photographers work at the confluence of politics and aesthetics, their approach is typically indirect. Anthony Barboza’s stark black-and-white image, “Fear,” from his series Black Dreams/White Sheets, employs nightmarish surrealism to reflect psychological aspects of the experience of being black in America. Someone — a man? a woman? — is seen from above, lying on the white sheets of a bed, dressed in robes that might be a Klansman’s, except that their color is black. Only the figure’s bare foot signals its race, as it stares back at the viewer with unknowable eyes.
On the other hand, playfulness, parody, and irony characterize works by Hank Willis Thomas, Larry McNeil, and Ana de Orbegoso. Thomas’s “Smokin’ Joe Ain’t J’mama” (1978/2011), from his widely exhibited series Unbranded: Reflections in Black from Corporate America 1968-2008, both deploys and subverts racial and gender stereotypes found in popular media and advertising to explore the commodification of blackness. “Smokin'” Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight boxing champion, who looks into the camera’s lens with a steady gaze and his fist cocked, would be the embodyment of masculine potency, were it not for the blue bonnet on his head and the stack of pancakes before him. Thomas has collaped whatever distance separated the boxer and Aunt Jemima.
McNeil’s “In the True Spirit of White Man” (2002), from the series Fly by Night Mythology, embraces American icons — the flag and a hot rod — only to satirize them. His text, which begins with “In the true spirt of white man. I stole this car in my search for america.”, is embedded in the image, making it an inseparable part of the whole. De Orbegoso’s “La Virgen del Norte” (2006/2011), from the series Virgenes Urbanas, is also in the business of undermining the power of icons. She appropriates a Spanish colonial image that was designed to inculcate ideals of purity and submissiveness in conquered people, replacing the European face with that of a contemporary Peruvian woman who’s anything but compliant. Lola Flash‘s portrait “Kinky D, London” (2003), from her series [sur]passing, is similarly characterized by a self-possessed female gaze. Flash plays with viewers’ voyeuristic impulses, knowing that this image of a brown-skinned woman with short hair, who wears a sleeveless T-shirt, jeans, and, conspicuous Ralph Lauren undershorts, will inevitably raise questions about ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. “Kinky D’s” calm, forthright gaze suggests that she will offer no easy answers.
The documentary impulse, often combined with portraiture, has always been one of Kamoinge’s and En Foco’s core concerns, as photographs by Dulce Pinzón, Frank Stewart, Samantha Box, John Pinderhughes, and Shawn Walker make clear. Walker is also represented by “Misterioso,” from his series Painting with Light, which would seem to be a purely abstract image but is, in fact, a picture of peeling and decaying paint on the side of a building — the elusiveness of the boundaries between documentary and art manifested in one small photograph.
The artistic and intellectual coherence of the photographs in Advancing the Frame, as well as the sheer range of techniques and approaches contained within them, give the exhibition its power. The show also demonstrates how members of the two collectives reflect movements within the larger photo community, while maintaining distinct, often oppositional visions. And there is no doubt that that gatekeepers — including photo festivals — are finally paying attention to what photographers of color have been doing while they were looking the other way. But it would be unfair to the practitioners represented in Advancing the Frame to leave it at that. As much as anything else, the exhibition reminds us what a pleasure and challenge it is to look at photographs.
Kamoinge and En Foco: Advancing the Frame continues at the Nathan Cummings Foundation (475 10th Avenue, 14th floor, Midtown West, Manhattan) through March 26. Gallery visits are by appointment only.