blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
LOUIS DRAPER | The Character of Everyday People

Thirteen Photographs, VMFA Acquisitions
Sarah Eckhardt, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Louis Draper moved to New York City in 1957. There he took classes at New York University’s Institute of Film and Television as well as at the New School for Social Research where he studied with the influential photographer Eugene Smith. He also established relationships with several major African American literary and artistic leaders, such as Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava.

In 1963 Draper was instrumental in forming the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of African American photographers. Having recently read Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta, Draper suggested kamoinge as their title because it means “a group of people acting and working together” in the language of the Kikuyu people.

  Kamoinge Workshop group photo, NYC, 1974.  Draper front row and center.
  The Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust.

While the artists did not work side by side, they met weekly to share their work and frequently exhibited together. In his notes on the history of the group, Draper wrote:

We dedicated ourselves to “speak of our lives as only we can.” 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 untruths we’d all seen in mainline publications.

In 1982 the photographer Carrie Mae Weems credited the efforts of Kamoinge as

the first steps taken by black photographers to come together and form a comprehensive group that would address in photographic terms the description of being black in America. (Carrie Mae Weems, “Personal Perspectives on the Evolution of American Black Photography: A Talk with Carrie Weems,” Obscura, 2, 1982.)

While the group organized several shows in their own gallery space in the mid-1960s, they also had exhibitions at New York’s International Center of Photography and the Studio Museum in Harlem. 

Draper’s work frequently focused on his urban environment, especially found texts. This included graffiti, such as Revolt Now, as well as posters and newspapers—for example, the prominent headline, Noisy Panthers Disrupt Trial.

While both of these works speak to the rising racial tensions of the era, other images, like the word Santos written on a playground wall, communicate Draper’s poetic sensibility, capturing strong contrasts between light and dark to convey a sense of transcendence. In addition, Draper made portraits of prominent African American figures such as Malcolm X and the Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Louis Draper’s sister, Nell Draper-Winston, who still lives in Richmond, brought his work to the attention of the VMFA, and the museum acquired thirteen of his photographs in 2013.  bug

(Click an image below to open a slide show of images.)

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