The Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of influential African American photographers formed during the Civil Rights Movement, was born out of a hope of creating a support system for producing, displaying, and archiving photographs in the face of rejection from nearly every established institution. Now, the work and archive produced by the group in its first twenty years has been gathered for exhibition at one of these very institutions in Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Collective at the Whitney Museum.
Yet, in forming Kamoinge the fourteen founding members created a rigorous yet non-hierarchical sphere of influence which challenges the very tidiness of museum retrospectives or surveys. Working Together, which originated at and is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), sketches out a few of the aesthetic connections between the styles of photographers in the nascent group, but stops short of broaching the fullness of its living, ongoing history or the connections to each founder’s current practice.
Central to the Kamoinge Workshop’s operations was a dedication to criticality as an investment in the growth and potential of each member’s individual vision. Members simultaneously worked to refine and elevate their craft while also recharacterizing the narrative of Black American life that had been established by mainstream media. Together they would hit the streets for group shoots, share photographic techniques, discuss poetry and avant garde films but above all devote serious time and energy to critiquing the work being produced by each artist.
Among all of the photographs on view there is a shared language: rich, pronounced shadows inspired by Roy DeCarava, a pension for abstraction informed by the work of Harry Callahan and Robert Frank, a lyricism captured in motion blurs influenced by reading Langston Hughes and listening to Miles Davis. Unconventional portraits like Herb Robinson’s stirring image of Miles Davis and Ming Smith’s animated still of Sun Ra demonstrate a willingness to break with photographic convention and deemphasize clarity and stillness in favor of capturing the energy and spirit of a space or person.
The exhibition and accompanying catalogue attempt to typify this confluence between “I” and “We” into broad thematic categories (“Community,” “Civil Rights,” “Jazz,” “Global Influence,” and “Abstraction & Surrealism”) which, while logical, barely scratch the surface of how deep these connections run between members.
The “Community” section of the show, for example, features evocative portraits and streetscapes depicting the vibrant political, social, and familial aspects of quotidian life in Black neighborhoods –– particularly Harlem. Images like Shawn Walker’s sartorial “Easter Sunday, Harlem (125th Street)” (1972) and James “Jimmie” Mannas’ enigmatic “No Way Out, Harlem, NYC” (1964) point to how abstraction, improvisation, and timing were integral to capturing not only the Jazz musicians that inspired them but the vibrancy of their neighborhoods and everyday life.
Riffing on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the decisive moment, the photographs featured in the exhibition are not only well-timed in their execution, but a reflection of the syncopation between the photographer and their surroundings — an alignment of consciousness, breath, and vision. In contrast to then-contemporary popular images of these communities, which framed them as over-run and clamorous, the Kamoinge Workshop’s photographs are studied, the result of careful looking and a deep respect for Black people.
This level of intentionality and skill is reflected in Louis Draper’s constant writing and archiving of the collective’s work, in each photographer’s collection of fellow members’ work, and in Nell Draper-Winston’s championing of her brother’s work at the VMFA. The true feat exemplified by Working Together is not that the VMFA and the Whitney “discovered” these artists after they disappeared into the archive but that this community continues to support one another’s work, including rescuing their legacy from obscurity. Taken together, as well as individually, the photographs are a testament to what happens when “we speak of our lives as only we can.”
Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop continues at the Whitney Museum through March 28. The exhibition is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Sarah Eckhardt, VMFA. The installation at the Whitney is overseen by Carrie Springer with Mia Matthias.