In November 1955, four days after Robert Frank was arrested, questioned, and released in Arkansas under the suspicion of being a Communist spy, he took a photograph, ‘‘Trolley — New Orleans’’ (1955), that was included with 82 others in his justly famous book, The Americans, which — we should remember — was first published in France in 1958. Frank’s photograph shows a line of white and black faces looking out the window of a trolley in segregated America, with the whites in front and the blacks in the back.
I thought of that photograph while walking back home from a retrospective exhibition of photographs by Louis Draper. Draper was born in 1935, a decade after the Swiss-born Frank, in the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, during the Great Depression. With segregation firmly in place, he would have been one of the people Frank photographed sitting at the back of the trolley in 1955, which was four years after Tennessee Williams’s play was turned into the film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Segregation was simply an unspoken fact of that and so many other Hollywood films. Who wants to think about such things while sitting in a movie theater? I suppose only those who have to.
Frank, who was an outsider and white, showed one aspect of a social order in which African Americans were both segregated and second-class citizens. The reason why I thought of Frank’s outsider status — and the role it played in his photographs — was because Draper lived for many years in Harlem on 127th Street, where he was a member of the black community and good friends with his neighbor, Langston Hughes. Draper’s photographs of Harlem, Mississippi, and Senegal afford us another view, that of an insider turning his views of the community he inhabited and knew well into art.
I suppose what I am getting at is context, and there are many contexts to consider. When I searched the collection of the Museum of Modern Art online, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it contains many Frank photographs, but I was disappointed to learn that there were none by Draper. Isn’t it time for MoMA to stop treating artists such as Draper, Roy DeCarava, Wifredo Lam, Norman Lewis, Ruth Asawa, and Alma Thomas as if they are second-class citizens? Sure, things are changing, but am I supposed to be happy when they toss out a few crumbs?
There are more than seventy-five vintage prints in Louis Draper at Steven Kasher (January 14–February 20, 2016), a show that should not be missed. In 1957, while he was taking photographs for his college newspaper, Draper saw the catalogue of the exhibition The Family of Man, organized by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. A landmark exhibit at the time, The Family of Man has since been roundly criticized by such well-intentioned figures as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Christopher Philips for being sentimental and humanist. Whatever its success or failure, its catalogue prompted Draper to move to New York City to become a photographer.
Soon after arriving in New York, and perhaps feeling a safe distance from the South, Draper took a photograph, “Congressional Gathering” (1959), which shows a row of bed sheets hanging from a clothesline, seemingly at night. Five years earlier, the United States Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education to end segregation in public education. Four years earlier, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy, was lynched and brutally — and, I would add, gleefully — murdered in Mississippi, where the perpetrators were later acquitted. Frank’s photograph of the New Orleans trolley says a lot about the state of America in the 1950s, but so does Draper’s.
Draper’s photograph still disturbs, and it should send a shock of recognition through anyone who cares to look. Its title speaks volumes. Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared segregation in public schools “inherently unequal,” Draper knew that he lived in a segregated world where members of Congress belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. The sheets, which he photographed in the dark, sag so loosely off the line that the light hitting their top corners evokes the Klan’s conical masks. Draper’s image summons the deep fear that must have been felt by every black person in America; this was what it meant to exist in a lawless society. Till’s murder and the acquittal of his killers confirmed it. As much as I love’s Frank’s photograph, Draper’s speaks to another, deeper part of us — the one where the fear of faceless authority churns. As recent events again make clear, no matter how minor the supposed crime, some people don’t get out of jail alive.
In 1963 — in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement — Draper was one of the founding members of Kamoinge Workshop, a group of fifteen black photographers. As the introduction to their first portfolio of work stated, this group’s “creative objectives reflect a concern for truth about the world, about society, about themselves.” Roy DeCarava was the Kamoinge Workshop’s first director. Hughes, who was friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson, introduced him to Draper, who got him to speak to the members of Kamoinge. This way of transmitting knowledge is basic to any art or literary group, and isn’t about networking or social climbing.
Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (2015), edited by Anthony Barboza and Herb Robinson, coedited by Vincent Alabiso, with a Foreword by Quincy Troupe, is a beautifully produced book documenting this group’s activities. Although not acknowledged on the cover, Deborah Willis has contributed an essay to it. This book is an essential document to the history of American photography. In celebration of this book’s publication, celebrating the group’s fiftieth anniversary, there is an exhibition, Kamoinge: Timeless, currently on view at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba House on the Lower East Side (December 15, 2015–Feb. 20, 2016).
There are photographs by Draper of black children playing on the streets, crossing the street as they walk home from school, big smiles on their faces. This is a world that he was part of, and knew well. If you think of them as social documents, you will miss the art. There is a portrait, “Malcolm X, 369th Armory, Harlem” (1964) in which only a sliver of Malcolm’s face is visible, the rest immersed in shadow. Draper is using the available light and seems to make himself invisible, that he wants to see, rather than be seen.
Sometimes the children Draper portrays look defiant, and why wouldn’t they be? In “Boy and H, Harlem” (1961), a skinny teenage boy, playing stickball, stands beside a wall. What does the “H” crudely painted on the wall behind him stand for? What associations does it stir up? What about the word night” hand-lettered on a store window in “Young Man Smoking, New York” (c.1965), that is cropped by the photograph’s right edge so that we read “nig?” On the other side of the cropped sign, a boy in a hat, looking all grown up, stares at the camera, smoking. In this and other portraits, the available light caresses the faces, and a moment of tenderness filters throughout.
In “Boy and Movie Poster, Harlem, New York City” (1968), a young boy is running down the street. Above him, and spanning the length of photograph, is a poster of famous Hollywood stars, all white. The juxtaposition is all, just as the person in the photograph. “Snowy Footprints on Sidewalk, New York” (c. 1965), who is walking in the snow, hidden under an umbrella, might remind you how difficult it is for some to make their way in an all-white world.
Louis Draper continues at Steven Kasher Gallery (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 20.
Kamoinge: Timeless continues at Wilmer Jennings Gallery (219 East 2nd Street, East Village, Manhattan) through February 20.