In the fall of 1963 — the final year of Jim Crow America — two Harlem-based groups of Black photographers came together to create the Kamoinge Workshop, which has since become the world’s longest-running photography collective. Taken from the Gikuyu language of Kenya, meaning “a group of people acting together,” Kamoinge provided a space for both professional photographers including Roy DeCarava, Adger Cowans, and Louis H. Draper to nurture emerging talents drawn from the community at a time when Black artists were systemically excluded from the fine art world.
As an institution of authority, wealth, and prestige, the fine art world mirrored and maintained the exclusionary systems of power of the dominant culture it served. The work of Black artists and depictions of Black life rarely appeared within the hallowed halls of museums and galleries. It fell upon Black artists to create and sustain spaces to nurture their own styles and approaches to artmaking, without the structures of support afforded to countless white male artists.
Rather than adopt the American obsession with “rugged individualism,” the members of Kamoinge understood the power of the group. Every Sunday, DeCarava, Cowans, and Draper would gather alongside founding members James Ray Francis, Herman Howard, Earl James, Anthony Barboza, Calvin Mercer, Beuford Smith. Herb Randall, Albert Fennar, Shawn Walker, James Mannas, and later Ming Smith, for rousing conversations about art, photography, film, music, and literature as well as in-depth critiques of their work. “We all met at somebody’s home and became family,” Walker remembers.
Without institutional support, Kamoinge made a way for themselves — a path they forged for nearly 60 years to become the longest-running photography collective in history. Yet, because of the on-going practice of exclusion within the art world, their works are only now being given their proper due in the major touring museum exhibition, Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop.
“My feeling is that the Black artist looks the same world in a different way”
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
Although the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movements were well in full swing when Kamoinge formed, the members resisted the label of civil rights photographers. They were not photojournalists chronicling events of the day, but rather artists and documentarians creating images of Black life that had been otherwise misrepresented, marginalized, or erased.
“My feeling is that the Black artist looks at the same world in a different way than a Euro-American artist,” DeCarava said in a 1990 interview. “He has a different agenda….. That agenda, at a minimum is survival as an American. It is freedom.”
The members of Kamoinge used their cameras as instruments in the same manner jazz musicians would, creating a new way of sharing stories of Black America that could only be told from the inside looking out. “[Kamoinge members were] dedicated to ‘speak of our lives as only we can,’” Draper is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalogue. “This was our story to tell and we set out to create these kinds of images of our communities that spoke of the truth we’d witnessed and that countered the untruths we’d all see in mainline publications.”
The members of Kamoinge maintained their highly individualistic ideas about the role and responsibilities of Black artists, resisting all notions of groupthink. Rather than conform to a single style, as the many art collectives have done throughout history, the members of Kamoinge dedicated themselves to the shared aims of increasing visibility for Black artists and protecting the free expression of creative thought.
A Love Supreme
DeCarava, whose 1955 book The Sweet Flypaper of Life with poet Langston Hughes became a touchstone for chronicling Black American life, first served as chairman of the group, and impressed upon members that photography was an art — long before the art world recognized it as such.
After DeCarava left the group in 1965, they soldiered on, opening the Kamoinge Gallery that same year in a brownstone on Strivers Row, one of the most illustrious blocks in Harlem. Although the gallery only ran for a year, the group made the most of their time, organizing two group exhibitions, “Theme Black” and “The Negro Woman.”
The gallery was also the site of photography critiques and lectures alike, creating a chain of events that helped seed Kamoinge’s influence in the art world. Draper brought Langston Hughes to give a talk. Hughes, in turn, invited his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, to speak to the group. Impressed by his encounter, Cartier-Bresson brought in Camera magazine publisher Romeo E. Martinez, who then organized a 23-page cover story on Kamoinge for the July 1966 issue.
After the gallery closed, Kamoinge sought new spaces to show their work, presenting exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1972 and at the International Center for Photography, when the museum first opened in 1974. Despite these early engagements with the establishment, the group would not show together again until the 1990s.
Come Rain or Come Shine
“The Kamoinge Workshop, while operating within an arena of negation, was primarily forged in an atmosphere of hope and not despair,” Draper said. It was an attitude that served them well, with members working to manifest their own dreams.
In 1969, Beauford Smith introduced the idea of creating The Black Photographers Annual to provide a showcase of work, in the same manner of the Popular Photography Annual, which was then publishing almost exclusively the work of white artists. Members contributed $12 to the cause, and in 1973, Smtih launched the first of a four-volume anthology that would be published through 1980.
“This is a rare book,” Toni Morrison wrote in the foreword to Volume 1. “It is also a true book. It hovers over the matrix of Black life, takes accurate aim and explodes our sensibilities. Telling us what we had forgotten we knew, showing us new things about ancient lives, and old truths in new phenomena. Not only is it a true book, it is a free one. It is beholden to no elaborate Madison Avenue force. It is society the product of its creators and its contributors. There is no higher praise for any project than it is rare, true, and free. And isn’t that what art is all about? And isn’t that what we are all about?”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop
The Whitney Museum of American Art
Through March 28, 2021
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Distributed by Duke University Press