Beuford Smith, “Malcolm X, Harlem” (1964) (all images courtesy Keith de Lellis Gallery)

For the past couple of years I have been writing about the founding members of the Kamoinge Workshop whenever one of them has a show. In 1963 — in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement — a group of fifteen black photographers got together to critique and nurture each other.

In Kenya’s Kikuyu language, “kamoinge” means a group of people acting together. Roy DeCarava was the group’s first director. Sixty years before the Workshop was formed, writing in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. DuBois summed up why a group like this was necessary, and why it had to happen in the early 1960s:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.

I thought about DuBois’s observation while walking around the exhibition Black Lives: Photographs by Beuford Smith at the Keith de Lellis Gallery (February 9–March 25, 2017).

Smith, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1941, is a self-taught photographer who got his education by going to the meetings of the Kamoinge Workshop, where he met Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza, and Ming Smith, all of whom I have previously written about. All of them made great photographs, as did Beuford Smith.

Beuford Smith, “Boy Holding Flag” (1966)

I don’t think you can overstate how important this group is, historically, socially, and aesthetically. During the upheaval of the 1960s — the needless violence, murders, and sanctioned suppression — these photographers documented something only they could have seen, a world that was completely separate from what was shown by Hollywood, television, and mainstream mass media to the rest of American culture.

Think of the famous photograph “San Francisco” (1956), taken by Robert Frank. A black couple is lying on a hill overlooking San Francisco. Frank approaches them from behind, invading their privacy, before taking a photograph. Aware that someone is behind them, the couple has turned to look at him: the woman is annoyed and the man, who is understandably suspicious, is angry. The photograph is read racially, with the focus on the fraught relationship between whites and black in America at that time.

But DuBois’s words give a different spin to Frank’s photograph. What would this couple’s reaction have been if the photographer had been black? Would the couple have perceived a black photographer as invading their space? Would doing such a thing then become, on some level, a privileged act? Certainly, in 1956, a black photographer would have been rightfully reluctant to do what Frank did if the couple had been white. It is important to remember these things. I think we need to look at ourselves looking at the photograph if we are to begin to see it.

Beuford Smith, “Kids in Park, NYC” (c. 1970)

The kind of confrontation between Frank and the black couple is absent from Smith’s photographs because he has a bond with most of his subjects. Like them, he is black, and he never invades his subject’s space. In fact, in a number of the photographs, the space is as important as the figure or figures occupying it. In “Seven Kids, Lower East Side” (1965), seven children are lined up against a wall according to size, with the tallest ones on the ends and in the middle. They are black and white and do not care that they are different colors. All of them have different expressions, from serious to smirking. The longer we look at the photograph the more it can be unpacked. By placing his subjects against a blank wall, Smith isolates them enough from their socio-economic environment to make us look again. What is the relationship of these children? What does this grouping say about the world they will grow up in?

Beuford Smith, “Boy & Doll, Lower East Side, NYC” (1966)

What about the child in “Boy & Doll, Lower East Side” (1966)? A broken and naked doll lies in the street, a foot or two away from the curb. An empty paper cup and other refuse lies between the doll, who is missing a leg, and the sidewalk. On the sidewalk, a few feet from the curb, we see a boy crouching behind a  length of fabric wrapped around him, like a shield, revealing only  his eyes and the top of his head. The space occupied by the boy fills the upper two-thirds of the photograph while the doll on the street takes up the lower third. It is almost as if the doll is on the orchestra pit with her head turned toward us, while boy is on stage, about to deliver his soliloquy. What will he say? Smith’s compositions are exquisite and necessary.

The greatness of “Boy & Doll, Lower East Side” is that we cannot account for what we are looking at. We can come up with socio-economic explanations, but that would be simplifying what Smith has photographed. Consider the relationship between the artist and his subject for starters.

The other thing about this show is how different the photographs are from each other, in mood and moments of privacy. A boy playing hide-n-seek behind the wall of a building cautiously peeks around the corner, unaware that he is being photographed from behind. Look at the different black surrounding the black girl in Palm Sunday (1968) and the way they isolate from the people standing around her on a subway, and you might be reminded of what the black narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) says:

[…] they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything except me.

In the two works titled “I Have a Dream: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr” (April 5, 1968), Smith assembles a group of photographs taken on the day after King was murdered. In one group, there is a photograph of a white policeman gripping a black man’s shoulder, as he forcefully directs him forward. In another group, there is a photograph of a row of policeman standing against a wall. All of them are white. We see the face of only one black person in the nine photographs Smith brings together in the two groupings. How many times must we witness grief before we get it?

Beuford Smith, “I Have a Dream: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (April 5, 1968)

Smith is a great photographer. If you want to understand what happened in the 1960s or you want to know about race in America, Smith is one of the essential photographers to look at, as are the other members of the Kamoinge to have shows in recent years. There is a dignity, determination, joy and mystery to many of his subjects that America has yet to fully embrace.

Black Lives: Photographs by Beuford Smith continues at the Keith de Lellis Gallery (1045 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 25.

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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,...