Ignored by his hometown during his lifetime, street photographer Louis Draper is finally getting his due.
“Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop,” a free exhibit featuring over 180 photographs, opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond over the weekend.
Born in 1935, Draper grew up in Richmond’s East End and attended Virginia State College, now Virginia State University. In 1957, he moved to New York to escape segregation and oppression.
There, he met a group of African American photographers who helped him launch his career and a movement in photography. They called themselves the Kamoinge Workshop.
They wanted to photograph the world around them, which was the streets of Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time of civil unrest and inequality.
They photographed their world: kids in the streets, the graffiti-laden walls, a broken basket used as a basketball hoop.
“We dedicated ourselves to speak of our lives as only we can,” Draper wrote during his lifetime. He died in 2002. “This was our story to tell and we set out to create the kind of images of our communities that spoke of the truth we’d witnessed and that countered the untruth we’d all seen in mainline publications.”
They took their name from the Kikuyu word “kamoinge,” which means “a group of people acting and working together.” The collective met weekly to look at each other’s work, support one another, and organize their own exhibitions.
Several photographers from the Kamoinge Workshop traveled to Richmond for the opening, including Shawn Walker. He grew up in Harlem and joined the Kamoinge Workshop in his early 20s.
“It was like going to the Sorbonne in Paris,” he said. “It was a school. We saw films, paintings. We had assignments.”
He described Draper as the teacher and mentor of the group. Draper had an art degree, while many of the other photographers did not.
“Lou was a technician. We went to him to learn how to print,” Walker said. He also described Draper as a “level-headed person, when many of the rest of us were not. We were young. Lou had the ability to calm us down.”
Walker said Kamoinge taught him everything he knew about art and photography. It was that nontraditional schooling that led him to a lifetime of teaching at schools such as The City College of New York.
Much of the artwork depicts the urban world of New York, as well as travels abroad to such places as Africa and Cuba.
While the Kamoinge Workshop resisted the label of civil rights photographers, members sought to document the truth of their lives, which included brushing with leading figures of the day like Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Amiri Baraka.
Work in this show came from the VMFA’s 2015 acquisition of Draper’s complete archive of more than 50,000 items, which the museum has digitized and made available on its website at https://www.vmfa.museum/collections/search-archives/louis-h-draper-archive-portal.
“Any history of the photography of America in the 1960s and 1970s would not be complete without mention of the Kamoinge Workshop,” said Sarah Eckhardt, the VMFA’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, who curated the exhibit.
On March 20-21, several photographers from the show will return for a symposium where they will talk about their work and the Kamoinge Workshop.
“[These artists] were more or less ignored in the art world,” said Alex Nygeres, director of the VMFA, during a press preview of the exhibit. “This exhibition is changing that.”
After its run in Richmond, “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” will move to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.