Retrospective: Louis Draper

Steven Kasher Gallery host a retrospective exhibition on African American photographer Louis Draper, co-founder of the Kamoigne Workshop

In 1963, the year that the Civil Rights Bill passed through the US Senate, Louis H Draper co-founded Kamoigne Workshop, a collective for black photography that is still active today.

The group was instilled from its foundation with Draper’s aim of elevating the representation of African Americans and transcending negative stereotypes by providing a universal view of their experience.

“Lou Draper’s photographs of blacks in the streets of Harlem showed their dignity, grace and a sense of pride,” said Shawn Walker, a member of Kamoigne, in a 1987 interview. “[...] I’d never seen such beautiful photographs of ordinary black people.”

Steven Kasher Gallery in New York is hosting a major retrospective on Draper until 20 February. Louis Draper features 75 prints from Draper’s archive, photographed between the 1950s and 1980s.

In 20th-century America, aside from the likes of Gordon Parks (featured in Jocks&Nerds issue 13) and Jamel Shabaaz (featured in Jocks&Nerds issue 6), African American photographers were largely denied their place in history. If you held out your hand to count the number of celebrated African American photographers, you would have a finger or two to spare.

In recent years, Draper’s work has been recognised – albeit posthumously. After his death in 2002, Draper was featured in exhibitions in his hometown in Virginia, as well as in a book published by Schiffer on the Kamoigne collective. Interest in Draper, his life and work, is growing.

Louis Draper was born in 1935, just outside Richmond, Virginia. His father was an amateur photographer and, along with Mrs Draper, valued education.

They sent their son to Virginia State College, where Draper caught the bug for photography after discovering the catalogue for The Family of Man, a photography exhibition showing commonalities between people of the world (MoMA, 1955), on his dormitory bed.

“That book really gave me a direction,” said Draper in a 1998 interview. He was captivated by the gritty faces of ordinary people, photographed by the likes of Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and an African American photographer named Roy DeCarava.

By 1957, he had a “mad desire” to study photography, so left for New York City where he was mentored by photographers Harold Feinstein, W Eugene Smith and DeCarava, all included in The Family of Man, as well as the poet Langston Hughes.

Draper would go on to found the Kamoigne Workshop with DeCarava, along with photographers Herbet Randall and Shawn Walker.

The group was formed from two similar African American photography collectives, who named their group Kamoigne, meaning a group of people acting together in Kenya’s Kikuyu language.

“We saw ourselves as a group who were trying to nurture each other,” Draper once said. “We had no outlets. The magazines wouldn’t support our work. So we wanted to encourage each other [...] to give each other feedback. We tried to be a force, especially for younger people.”

Aside from Draper’s Harlem street photography, the Louis Draper exhibition will include his images from Mississippi, portraits of artists and political figures like Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Katherine Dunham and Hughie Lee Smith. It will also include Draper's images taken in Senegal between 1977-1978.