Anthony Barboza, “Coney Island 1970’s,” vintage gelatin silver print, 6” x 8.75 (all images courtesy of Keith de Lellis Gallery)

After graduating from New Bedford High School (New Bedford, Massachusetts) in 1963, Anthony Barboza worked two jobs for six months — bagging groceries at a supermarket during the day and dyeing fabric in a factory at night — to save up money to move to New York City to study photography. He found a school in the pages of a New York telephone book that his aunt brought back from the city, where she worked as an assistant buyer for Lord & Taylor. This is Barboza in a nutshell: headstrong and determined. He did move New York and go to the school he found in the telephone book, but not for long because it wasn’t serious enough.

While he was there, his aunt proved her importance once more. One of her friends introduced him to Adger Cowans, who was working with Gordon Parks, then photographing for Life magazine, as well as the fashion photographer, Henry Clarke. Cowans took the unschooled teenager to a meeting of the African American photography group, the Kamoinge Workshop, which was just forming. This is how Barboza met Louis Draper, someone he considered one of his “professors.” Barboza’s education became the critiques hosted by the Kamoinge Workshop, as well as his association with photographers such as Draper and Cowans. It is a history that needs to be further explored.

This is how I described the Kamoinge Workshop in my review of Louis Draper, “Does The Museum of Modern Art Even Know About This Great Photographer?” (Hyperallergic Weekend, February 7, 2016):

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.

The Workshop is still active, and Barboza has been its president since 2004. In the magazine Photograph (January/February, 2016), Barboza points out that Kamoinge is the oldest nonprofit photography club in America. The reason he was drawn to the group was because “It is to make images that go beyond what you immediately see and know.” Recently published, Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (2015), edited by Anthony Barboza and Herb Robinson, co-edited by Vincent Alabiso, with a foreword by Quincy Troupe, celebrates this group’s history and achievements.

While reflecting upon the exhibition Anthony Barboza: Vintage Photographs 1963–1990s at Keith De Lellis Gallery (January 28–March 12, 2016), I thought about context much in the same way that I did when I looked at Draper’s work. Barboza had something going on in his photographs right from the start. My first impression was that there must be large bodies of work by Barboza that should be seen and collected in books. A broader scope was hinted at in this large — but for my taste, not large enough — selection of Barboza’s black-and-white vintage prints from four decades. When I came to the end of it, I wanted to see more, and immediately went back and started from the beginning.

Anthony Barboza, "NYC 1970’s," Vintage Gelatin Silver Print 4.75” x 7”

Anthony Barboza, “NYC 1970’s,” vintage gelatin silver print 4.75” x 7” (click to enlarge)

There are a number of abstract photographs taken in the 1970s that provided a taste for more in this vein. Two of them are of windows, but what is inside of them is not clear. One seems to contain a white picket fence made out of cut paper, which spans the entire lower part of the window, taking up nearly the entire photograph, as if it could protect those inside.

Another group of photographs is of a child’s hand pressed against a windowpane or car window. I was reminded of Stevie Smith’s famous poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” which ends with:

I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Except in Barboza’s photographs, the hands are neither waving nor drowning. They are pressing against the glass, and there is something plaintive in their gesture.

In “San Francisco, California” (1970s) an advertisement showing half of a white man’s face has been painted just below a building’s roof. The rest is cropped by the building’s right edge. This seemingly benign image has since become sinister-looking in the age of drones and government eavesdropping; forty years ago, it was sinister for different reasons. This is one of Barboza’s strengths: he brings together social consciousness and aesthetic precision without becoming didactic.

In his remarkable book, Ongoing Moment (2007), Geoff Dyer focused on photographers who photographed the same subject, such as Bruce Davidson and Walker Evans. From Barboza’s photographs of families at Coney Island, of gangs of kids hanging out, and the portraits he took of children in Jacksonville, Florida, in the late 1960s, it is clear that he had a very easy relationship with his subjects, much warmer than that of Davidson or Evans, especially in his classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Davidson, speaking about his series, Brooklyn Gang (1959), told Jim Lewis in an article called “Leader of the Pack” (The New York Times, September 7, 2010): “They treated me like an invisible man. I was a shadow.” Barboza’s subjects look back. They know he’s there and they gesture and even smile at him, though I wouldn’t say they are being friendly. In the photos Barboza took in Jacksonville, it’s obvious that for these black children, the Great Depression never ended. And yet, they look defiant and proud, rather than beaten down and forlorn.

Anthony Barboza, "Jacksonville, Florida 1960’s," Vintage Gelatin Silver Print 10” x 6.5”

Anthony Barboza, “Jacksonville, Florida 1960’s,” vintage gelatin silver print, 10” x 6.5” (click to enlarge)

A similar pride and defiance, mixed with resiliency and urban toughness, comes across in his photographs of children at Coney Island. Sometimes, the teenage boys look at him warily, but they are never afraid. There was a bond between Barboza and his subjects based on race, and you would be lying if you ignored that fact. What we see in his photographs of teenagers and young adults hanging together is what Davidson didn’t photograph, another world that was closed off to him, and that we have yet to fully recognize.

Once I realized this, it wasn’t much of a leap to consider Davidson’s series, East 100th Street, which he made over a two-year period in the late 1960s. Many of Davidson’s subjects are black or Hispanic. He asked permission to photograph them. The book is a powerful record of human dignity in the face of poverty, life in a crumbling city. In many of the photographs that Barboza took in Pensacola, Florida, in 1966, Jacksonville, Florida, in the late ‘60s, and in New York in the 1970s, what comes across is non-compliance, a feeling of pride and resistance.

The Photograph magazine article describes Barboza as having “a varied career in photography. He has shot everything from fashion photographs for Essence magazine to an album cover for Miles Davis (You’re Under Arrest).” His portraits of a teenaged Michael Jackson, a smiling Louis Farrakhan, a bald and beautiful Pat Evans, and a young Iman would constitute just a small chapter of one of the many books that Barboza deserves to have published on his behalf. The history of postwar American photography is incomplete until this starts to happen.

Anthony Barboza, "Michael Jackson 1979," Vintage Gelatin Silver Print 14” x 14”

Anthony Barboza, “Michael Jackson 1979,” vintage gelatin silver print, 14” x 14”

Anthony Barboza, "Coney Island, NY 1970’s," Vintage Gelatin Silver Print 13” x 8.75”

Anthony Barboza, “Coney Island, NY 1970’s,” vintage gelatin silver print, 13” x 8.75”

Anthony Barboza: Vintage Photographs 1963–1990s continues at Keith De Lellis Gallery (1045 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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