meIn 1973, a group of 14 New York photographers huddled together in a photo studio on West 18th Street in Manhattan, posing in front of a Hasselblad camera for a group shot written by Anthony Barboza, who smiles in the image.
“I remember fixing the lighting and then my assistant took the photo,” Barboza told the Guardian. “It is a photo of a family. That is what it is. A family photo “.
It shows members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of black photographers that was formed in 1963 to document black culture in Harlem and beyond, from live jazz concerts to portraits of Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Grace Jones, as well as the civil rights. anti-war movement and protests.
A selection of more than 100 photos of the group is on view in a poll at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called Working together: the photographers at the Kamoinge workshop, which runs until March 28.
“The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social unrest, just like ours is now,” said Whitney curator Carrie Springer (this traveling exhibition from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is curated by Sarah Eckhardt)
“Seeing how they focused their artwork on representing the community as they experienced it is inspiring, in a time like today,” said Springer. “His work of self-organization in his community represents an individual and collective truth, which focuses on the power that art can have in communities.”
The Kamoinge collective (pronounced kom-wean-yeh) began in 1963, when a group of 14 black photographers from New York came together to form a group, exchange skills, and criticize each other. They chose “Kamoinge”, which means “a group of people who act together” in the Gikuyu language of Kenya. They worked to tell black stories by representing black communities, from local neighbors to superstars, and saw their emergence around the same time as the Black Arts Movement. Kamoinge Photographer Adger cowans, who is 84 years old, always believed that the group could show the truth about the lives of blacks, more than a stranger. The goal has always been “to show people in a positive way.”
“When I wasn’t shooting commercial work in the studio, I was shooting on the streets, using what I learned from the teachings of Roy DeCarava and the other photographers at Kamoinge,” said Barboza. “We all learned from each other. They were my best mentors. “
The group supported each other with criticism, discussion, and often ventured to film together as a family, while also filming alone. “I did a lot of portraits of black artists and musicians in my spare time,” said Barboza, who photographed Michael Jackson at age 21, as well as James Baldwin and Gordon Parks.
Nine of the original 14 artists are alive today, working and living in New York, including Beuford Smith, Ming Smith, and Herb Randall. After the first 20 years, the group reorganized as Kamoinge Incand expanded to include membership and nonprofit status, and continues today, 60 years since the first foundation.
As one of the group’s members, Ray Francis said in 1982: “We were a group in which stars fell,” and he attributes observational photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange as influences. Another member, Ming Smith, calls it: “Making something out of nothing. I think that’s like jazz. “
Whitney’s exhibition is organized into five sections, including a community-focused section, detailing people’s everyday lives in the city, at work, play, and travel. Another section focuses on music, since jazz has been a fundamental influence on the group. “There is a lot of poetry in those images, the jazz musicians were their themes and their inspiration,” said Springer.
There are also sections dedicated to abstraction and surrealism, civil rights, which represent figures of the movement, and a global section, which focuses on the African diaspora communities, as the photographers traveled to Cuba, Senegal and Jamaica to photograph, as well as the South.
“They were photographers who were committed to photography as an art form,” said Springer. “It’s hard for some people to remember that in the early 1960s, photography was not widely thought of as an art form. It was not as accepted as an art form. It speaks more poetically than a documentary photo. “
Harlem-born photographer, Shawn walker, one of the founding members of the group, shows a photo showing two handsome men in white suits and hats on Easter Sunday in Harlem, dated 1972. “I would go to churches and after everyone left mass, I would go to 125th Street to be on the lookout for all who sell their new products, “he said. “Those guys in white were waiting in line for a Polaroid photo. He was trying to show people proud of their culture by dressing up. “
According to Walker, 125th Street was the hotspot to shoot. “It was the main street, a commercial area with meat markets, everything,” Walker said. “For me, I shot from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, it wasn’t from river to river, but it was close.
“I would hang out at Hotel Theresa, even now, if you’re not doing anything and hanging out in that area, you will surely come home with some photos. “Even if I come home from shopping and have an extra 30 minutes, I sit back and watch people walk by and start shooting.”
It has been a difficult year for Walker. “I caught the virus and lost a leg, but I’m alive,” he says.
Today, Walker shoots with a Canon pocket camera. “I didn’t use a lot of heavy equipment nor was it obvious,” he said. “It was about trying to get a good photo without being seen. It was about how we blacks saw ourselves, it was about culture and anthropology, I consider myself a cultural anthropologist ”.
However, shooting 40 years ago in Harlem is not the same as today. “Now people ask, ‘why are you taking a picture of me?’” He says. “People are much more aware of who you are and what you are doing. In the 1970s, I could walk around Spanish Harlem and take pictures. “
Ming Smith was the first female member of the group. She recently said in an interview: “Being a black photographer was like being nobody”, explaining that: “It was just me and my camera. I worked to capture black culture, wealth, love. That was my incentive. It wasn’t like I was going to make money from it, or from fame, or even from love, because there were no shows. “
Although today, the black gaze in photography is increasingly accepted by the art world, with important books and hindsight, that was not always the case. “A lot of people thought things changed after Martin Luther King Jr, but they didn’t change, we have black mayors and politicians, but the racism is still there,” Walker said.
The photos in the exhibition are not just limited to New York. There is a Herbert Randall photo of a woman in Palmers Crossing, a Hattiesburg, Mississippi neighborhood, which sheds light on a community of volunteers involved in the Freedom Summer project, which helped increase black voter registration.
As Barboza says, the key to a good portrait is not necessarily technical skill, but rather to convey emotion, a feeling. It’s not about overthinking anything.
To sum up the theme that ties all the photos of the Kamoinge members into one movement, it’s simple. “There is a feeling of tranquility and spirituality in the photographs,” said Barboza. “It’s pretty. I call it ‘the dreaming eye.’
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism