'Being at the Whitney is a great thing' Bridgeport photographer Adger Cowans says

"Momma's Ohio Piano" by Adger Cowans.

Courtesy of Adger Cowans and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts / Contributed photo

A new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art celebrates a group of 14 mostly amateur photographers who in the early 1960s in Harlem founded what came to be called the Kamoinge Collective, determined to remake the image of Black America.

Unique among them is Bridgeport’s own Adger Cowans. Then the group’s lone professional with art school training, Cowans has lived in the Read’s Artspace Building since 2006 and at age 84 remains very active.

For one thing, Cowans is the current president of the Kamoinge Collective, which has been meeting via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, he published a memoir, “Art in the Moment,” that includes his assignments on movie sets, photographing stars. His latest personal photography project is taking stop-motion images of waves at Seaside Park.

“I go to the park when the waves are high. The shapes are interesting,” he said.

Cowans has a dozen photographs in the Whitney exhibit titled “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop.” Of those shown on the museum website, the one most directly documentary image is a 1965 photo taken in Harlem on the day of Malcolm X’s funeral.

A pair of overcoated New York City policemen flank the doors of a building from which Malcolm’s black-veiled widow, Betty Shabazz, is just emerging. Taken on the spot, the symmetry of the photograph is nevertheless nearly perfect, down to the fact that one policeman is white and the other Black.

Other photos are more deliberately artful, like the image taken from above of footsteps left in the snow by a solitary man. Another overhead shot captures the long shadows cast by a trio of walkers across a cracked sidewalk.

But the most artful, and easily the most intimate, is a nude Cowans took in 1958, at the start of his career.

More abstract than figurative, it shows a rounded shape that at a glance appears to be a polished stone sculpture. Its title is “Egg Nude” and the model is his former wife, who has curled herself into such a tight ball that neither her arms or legs are visible.

“We had just got married,” Cowans recalled. “She didn’t want to pose in the nude. But when that picture was in a show at the Met (the Metropolitan Museum in New York), she was going up to the picture and people would go by and say, ‘That’s a great photo.’

And she said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ She didn’t want me to take any nude pictures and put them in Playboy. But later she realized the kind of picture I’d taken.”

Sixty years on, Cowans, whose portfolio also includes abstract paintings, still considers himself a fine art photographer, first and foremost. In art school at Ohio University, he studied under teachers influenced by Alfred Stieglitz, the early champion of photography as an art form.

Cowans says his personal ideal was Edward Weston.

“He was the one I gravitated toward. That photograph ‘Egg Nude,’ is a shout-out to Edward Weston, because I thought he was great,” Cowans said.

As gratified as he has been to see the photograph in the Whitney show, he was doubly pleased to see it displayed full width on the cover of the New York Times art section, accompanying a Critic’s Pick review of the exhibit.

“I was excited about it because they chose it not because of color, but because of art. I liked it because they saw the art, they did not see Black,” he said.

That same photography-first focus is one he brought to the Kamoinge group. Cowans was living in lower Manhattan when he got a call from Ray Francis, a Harlem camera store owner, who had seen his photo of Louis Armstrong on a magazine cover.

“He said, ‘Hey, man, I saw your picture. We got a bunch of guys up here. Would you come up and help us out?’ I said, sure,” Cowans recalled.

“I talked to guys about how to read a light meter. They weren’t professionals. They had other jobs. A lot of them didn’t have a camera that was worth anything.”

The group grew gradually, coalescing around a single purpose. “We were tired of the way white people photographed Black people. They were always poor or on drugs and we were just sick of that. There was nothing positive,” Cowans said.

But when the time came to formally organize, Cowans was in the minority about choosing a name. “They said, ‘We need to have a name that people know we’re Black.’ I said, ‘No, don’t do that. We want the quality of the work, not the color,’ ” he said.

They settled on Kamoinge (roughly pronounced kom-wahn-gay), a word borrowed from the Kikuyu people of Kenya that means a group acting together.

Cowans himself grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Another photo in the Whitney exhibit is telling about his upbringing in what he has said was a poor family with middle-class values.

The photo, titled “Momma’s Ohio Piano,” taken in 1965, shows the upright his mother, a church pianist, often played. Above the keyboard is a dog-eared score of a tune titled “Bless This House.” Arranged on the top of the piano is a trumpet and family photographs.

His father worked as a private butler, he said, and his uncles included a fireman and a policeman. “I am a Black man. I’m not ashamed about anything. I didn’t grow up thinking I was less than. I grew up with Black men who were proud and did what they wanted to do in life,” he said.

The same year he took “Egg Nude,” Cowans found a mentor in Gordon Parks, already famous as a Life magazine staff photographer and later as a movie director. Cowans himself broke a color line in 1969 when he became the first Black member of the cinematographers union for his work on movie sets.

Among the stars and directors he photographed were Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Ossie Davis and Spike Lee. The work supported his art photography. He said he moved to Bridgeport after rent almost doubled on his New York studio.

The check-rated Times review said the art world in general has been playing “catch-up” in recognizing Black talent. Cowans agrees and thinks the new attention was prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and intensified by the death of George Floyd.

“Being at the Whitney is a great thing. I think it should have happened a long time ago,” he said. “It’s on a national level and everybody can go see it. It’s because of Black Lives Matter.

“It’s because they put their knee on that brother’s neck on national TV. Everybody saw it and everybody was saying, ‘Get off his neck. Get off his neck.’ How blatant as that? That sent shock waves through the whole world, Black people and white people. Everybody was aghast that he did that.”

The “Working Together” exhibit originated at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art after it acquired the 50,000-item archive of early Kamoinge member Louis Draper. It runs at the Whitney until March 28. Then it travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

On March 3, Cowans and two other surviving Kamoinge photographers will appear in a free Zoom program discussing their interests and influences. The full range of Cowans work can be seen on his website, adgercowans.com.

Joel Lang is a freelance writer.