When fourteen photographers decided to get together in 1963 to for regular critiques, history was happening in Harlem, Mississippi, and on the Capitol Mall and life was bursting at the seams in down-and-out neighborhoods all around them.
The collaboration, influence, mutual support, and artistic output of their first 20 years is the story told in Working Together: Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, an exhibition on view at the Whitney Museum of American through March 28.
The show, originally produced by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, shines a light on the work of the workshop’s founders. It’s a master class in black-and-white photography, experimentation, and community spirit. Everyone has their own style and path, all the works you’ll see here provide a window into community and life in New York during the Sixties and Seventies with a different slant than you’ve seen before.
The Kamoinge Workshop artists were keenly aware that they had access to people and events either ignored by mainstream media or at least invisible to it. Plus, they all had keen awareness and appreciation for artistic heroes, like Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, and other legendary photographers, and used the workshop to push one another forward – to make art that went beyond basic photojournalism, and use formal composition and other imaginative techniques.
When they began meeting in the Sixties, Herb Randall showed photos of Southern life taken the summer he accompanied the Freedom Riders to Mississippi; Adger Cowans showed his abstracted, from-a-rooftop image of the crowd listening to Malcom X; Herb Randall showed images of Harlem kids cutting up for his camera; James Mannes Jr. showed formally composed portraits evoking African royalty.
Share the excitement that they felt at the time:
The quality of the work and the unlikely prospects of being selected for shows in elite museums or high-end commercial galleries inspired them to get it out there a different way – by issuing portfolios that they donated to museums, libraries, and universities.
Anthony Barboza’s group portrait of the founding members is the welcome image for the Whitney show. Inside the space, the work is loosely grouped into areas featuring emerging political movements in Harlem, abstraction, experimentation, journeys to Africa and the Caribbean, and cityscapes during a time when New York was going downhill.
Every time we visited, viewers were studying each work closely, somewhat transfixed by each window into the past. Each image has a special twist to it – shadows creating abstractions across bodies or buildings, the unexpected jolt of the pattern of a man’s jacket, or the panorama of life in a fleeting moment on a street in Senegal.
Look at some of our favorites in our Flickr album, and meet each of the artists on the museum’s exhibition page. Click on each artist’s portrait to see some of their work in the exhibition, and listen to them speak about their work on the audio guide.
Meet the artists and listen to what this group meant to them in the Seventies and today:
Next stops on the exhibition tour – the Getty in Los Angeles (June 29 – September 26, 2021) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (February 25 – May 15, 2022).
On Wednesday, March 24, meet Ming Smith in a live online event, discussing the publication of her recent Aperture monograph and the influence of music upon her work.