Essays

A Photographer Who Captured the Complexity of Black Life in Lyrical Ways

Louis H. Draper, “Unititled Portrait” (all images courtesy Bookmark and Eric Kunsman)

Louis Draper resisted labels. He knew that they could confine, like boxes, but much worse, they might be like prison cells: impossible to escape. He was especially wary of being branded a “black photographer,” fearing that photography’s gatekeepers would use the phrase to diminish his artistry and restrict his work to the margins of the photographic world. At the same time, however, he placed the African American experience at the center of his artistic practice. He believed that his people’s history and culture could be the wellspring of great art as surely as the experiences of any other group, including white men. His photography addressed universal themes while embracing a black aesthetic, one he called “a gift with responsibility.” Unlike most gifts, this one came with its price tag still attached.

Draper’s photographs won him early acclaim, yet his achievements as a photographer, arts activist, and teacher merit more recognition than they received. He never fully escaped the marginalization that the label “black photographer” often implied. Neither he nor his African American peers could have avoided the label in his United States — and probably not in ours. In fact few would have wanted to renounce it entirely. Instead the black photographer’s struggle has been to expose the lie that separates “black art” from “art.” Photographers from Anthony Barboza to James Van Der Zee have insisted that grounding one’s art in the black experience does not disqualify one from entering the photographic mainstream. It is an argument that white publishers, critics, and curators have been reluctant to accept.

Installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Selected Photographs of Louis Draper’ at the Burgess Fine Arts Collection Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Now, a decade and a half after his death, the images in Louis H. Draper: Selected Photographs and a separate exhibition of his photography at the Burgess Fine Arts Collection Gallery, in New York City, make a strong case for his inclusion in any account of 20th-century American photography. Edited by Margaret O’Reilly, executive director of the New Jersey State Museum, Selected Photographs presents a comprehensive overview of Draper’s four-decade career. The book’s substantial essays, by Gary D. Saretzky and Iris Schmeisser, provide biographical information and contextualize Draper’s work within social and cultural history in the US.

Draper began to study photography as a college student in his home state of Virginia, after someone — he never learned who — left a copy of the catalogue to the exhibition The Family of Man in his dormitory room. Much maligned by critics over the years for its supposed mushy humanism, The Family of Man, which opened a five-month run at the Museum of Modern Art in January 1955 and later travelled through 37 countries, has nevertheless inspired generations of photographers worldwide. The exhibition’s documentary-style photographs, by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, and Lisette Model, showed people of all colors engaged in common human activities demonstrated to Draper the potential of the still image to be both a medium of artistic expression and a weapon against racism.

In the late 1950s, Draper left school and moved to New York City, determined to escape the restrictions of the Jim Crow South and to immerse himself in photography. He quickly found mentors, most importantly the photographers W. Eugene Smith, Roy DeCarava, and Harold Feinstein. DeCarava and the poet Langston Hughes, who was Draper’s landlord for a time, also introduced the younger man to New York’s burgeoning community of black artists and intellectuals and to their fierce debates about art and politics. The influence of these mentors is readily visible in Draper’s early work: Smith’s darkroom wizardry, Feinstein’s unsentimental humanism, DeCarava’s concern with light and shadow.

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Louis H. Draper, “Untitled Cityscape”

DeCarava’s influence was also apparent in Draper’s quiet yet insistent challenge to the pervasive dehumanization of African Americans in visual representation. Draper was determined to follow DeCarava and the painters Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence in marrying modernism to a black aesthetic, which he understood as having little to do with style and form. Instead it meant, in DeCarava’s words, “art that serves the needs of [black] people.”

Draper first attracted wide attention, in 1959, when the George Eastman Museum included one of his photographs in the exhibition and catalogue, Photography at Mid-Century. The artists represented in the show constituted “an international Who’s Who of photography,” as Saretzky puts it in his essay. Draper was one of two African Americans to be included. The other was Gordon Parks.

The Eastman Museum exhibition opened few doors. In the early 1960s, Draper faced the twin challenges of developing as an artist and making a living as a photographer. The first was difficult enough for anyone; the second was almost impossible for African Americans, except for portrait photographers who served the black community and the few photojournalists who worked for the black press. White-owned and -edited newspapers and magazines refused to hire blacks for staff positions or as freelancers. Parks was a rare exception that proved the rule, as he was painfully aware. To address both problems, Draper and a small group of other young black photographers formed the Kamoinge Workshop in 1963. Its purposes, Draper once wrote, were to propel “one another to higher photographic attainment” and to “give us the strength to continue in the face of a largely hostile and at best indifferent photographic community.”

Fannie Lou Hamer fig 1
Louis H. Draper, “Fannie Lou Hamer” (click to enlarge)

The visual representation of African Americans was also a core concern. Kamoinge’s members, Draper wrote, dedicated themselves to “speak of our lives as only we can.” This meant, among other things, producing photographs that could combat “the untruths we’d seen in mainline publications.” Pursuing these goals, Kamoinge sponsored exhibitions, promoted publication for its members in art and photography magazines, and fought against racial discrimination in the publishing industry. It was Draper’s launching pad.

The 84 black-and-white plates featured in Selected Photographs, that Kamoinge members helped to edit, reflect the genres in which Draper tended to work, including portraiture, street photography, and found abstract imagery.

Draper’s portraits reveal his gift for illuminating his subject’s character through a stance, gesture, or fleeting expression. However, his portrait of the Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer is an exception — there is nothing fleeting about it. With the frame cropped tightly around the face and the background lost in deep shadows, she seems solid and immobile — and as permanent as the pyramids of Giza. While her intelligence and endurance are instantly recognizable, so too is the wit which brings the portrait to life.

A photograph of Malcolm X at an indoor rally is the only other image of a civil rights icon that appears in Selected Photographs. As with Hamer, Draper has enveloped him in shadows, but here he has declined to heroicize him. Seen from the neck up, Malcolm’s face occupies only a small portion of the center of the frame. His admittedly animated and forceful expression is nevertheless overwhelmed by the darkness that surrounds him. Both portraits are also on view at Burgess Fine Arts.

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Louis H. Draper, “Malcolm X”

An untitled portrait of a young man from the mid-1970s, in Selected Photographs, is more typical of Draper’s photographs of people. Even though most of his subjects were African Americans, many of his photographs are not “about race,” only in the since that a black body is almost always a racial signifier in ways that white bodies are not. Here, for instance, he individualizes his subject, seeking to reveal his personality and idiosyncrasies. The young man is not a stand-in for “black people” or “the poor.” In this and other photographs, it is apparent that Draper had no desire to confront stereotypes in open battle. He was a guerilla fighter in the wars of representation.

Two images that appear only in Selected Photographs illustrate Draper’s interest in the abstractions of shape and geometry, and the deep, rich shadows and well controlled highlights of his dark room practice. In “Handball,” for instance, two human figures, seen in silhouette, add dynamism to a frame that is defined by three jagged, contrasting planes of gray. Similarly, an untitled cityscape, showing the tops of buildings silhouetted against the sky, becomes an almost pure abstraction of dark shapes against a light background.

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Louis H. Draper, “Handball”

Lyricism and a taste for the surreal characterize many of Draper’s photographs. Bold geometric planes and the human figure define “Trombonist,” which is included in the book and exhibition. In the foreground, a trombone player strides toward the edge of the frame, the bell of his instrument pointing awkwardly toward his feet. Larger than life-size African American heroes, including Angela Davis and a boxer who might be Muhammad Ali, populate a mural on the wall behind him. Draper’s photograph is simultaneously about tone and form, on the one hand, and black history and culture, on the other.

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Louis H. Draper, “Trombonist”

An image from Coney Island, “Heckyl and Jeckyl,” which appears in Selected Photographs, brings sly social commentary to a study in shapes and tonality. Draper leads his viewers’ eyes past the frame’s chunky, irregular geometry to a wall where cartoon characters enact a scene from Walt Disney’s 1941 film Dumbo — a reference made clear by the presence of the flying elephant in the upper left hand corner of the frame. Crows, who represented jive-talking African American men in the film as they often did in popular media, dance on a telephone wire. A dog, framed by an amusement ride’s rear window, watches them hungrily. Without shouting, Draper reminds his viewers how deeply implicated popular culture is in the maintenance of white supremacy.

Ralph Ellison once said that he recognized “no dichotomy between art and protest.” Selected Photographs and the exhibition at Burgess Fine Arts remind us of the pleasures of seeing. Draper delights us, for instance, when he captures a moment of elegance or poignancy suspended in time, a moment so fleeting that we would never see it, except for the camera. At the same time, he challenges his viewers to see beyond caricatures and stereotypes and embrace the complexity of black life in the United States.

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Louis H. Draper, “Heckyl and Jeckyl”

Louis H. Draper: Selected Photographs, published by BookSmart Studio, Inc., and Mercer County Community College, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. Selected Photographs of Louis Draper continues at the Burgess Fine Arts Collection Gallery (4 Barclay St, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 28. The Burgess Fine Arts Collection Gallery is open by appointment only, Monday through Friday, from 10:00am to 6:00pm. To schedule an appointment call (212) 406-2400.

Draper’s photographs can be found in the permanent collections at Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture, among other institutions.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Louis H. Draper: Selected Photographs was published by Saretzky Online Photo Books. It was published by BookSmart Studio, Inc., and Mercer County Community College. This has been amended. 

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