Exhibits highlight black photographers
In an arrestingly beautiful photograph, the crescent-shaped opening of a niqab, a Muslim face cover, reveals a woman’s dark skin, the white of the garment mirroring the whites of her probing eyes. The tight composition and simplicity of the image highlight the woman’s intent gaze.
In an interview about his photographic portraits, artist Chester Higgins once said, “What I find most interesting is the spirit within…I seek to produce a photograph that presents the obvious, sometimes the ordinary, but goes further to reveal what’s hidden and makes the subject extraordinary.”
This image and others by Higgins can be seen in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ small-scale photography exhibition, “Like a Study in Black History: P.H. Polk, Chester Higgins, and The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 2,” on view until May 6.
In 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1980, African American artists in New York City published The Black Photographers Annual — portfolios of their photography. The idea developed out of the Kamoinge workshop, a collective of artists whose name derives from the Kikuyu language of Kenya meaning “to work together.”
The Kamoinge workshop was formed in 1963 to support artists working toward equality in the photography industry, and continues to guide artists today. Many notable artists have been involved, including Higgins, Roy DeCarava and Beuford Smith.
Focus on a Richmond native
Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the VMFA, first became interested in Kamoinge and The Black Photographers Annual through her research on photographer Louis Draper, who was born and raised in Richmond.
In 2016, the VMFA acquired 35 photographs by Draper, as well as his complete archive, and in 2020 the VMFA will present a large-scale exhibition of Louis Draper and the early years of the Kamoinge workshop.
As Eckhardt explains, “Kamoinge was such a huge part of Draper’s life that researching the group helps to give dimension and context to his life and work.”
As she began researching Draper and the Kamoinge workshop, Eckhardt became intimately familiar with The Black Photographers Annual and decided to present four small exhibitions about each of the volumes.
“I was struck by these amazing documents. They weren’t part of the photo history I had learned,” she said. “Because we are acquiring works by African American artists, this is a good tool for learning more about which photographers were showing at the time.”
See all the photos online
The exhibition rotations do not exclusively show art depicted in the actual publication, but they do include artists who are either featured or were active during that time. A digitized version of the publication will be available in the gallery, and visitors can see all four volumes online through the VMFA Library website: www.vmfa.museum/collections/stories/the-black-photographers-annual/
Almost all the works in the exhibitions come from the VMFA’s collection. Many are recent acquisitions from the past year or few years, giving community members the opportunity to see works that have not yet been on view.
The first rotation was on display from Feb. 16 to Oct. 1, 2017 and included works by Draper, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith and Shawn Walker, among others. The exhibition was titled “A Commitment to the Community: The Black Photographers Annual Volume One.” The exhibit’s name came from a quote from Toni Morrison’s preface explaining the mission driving the publication: “It was conceived as a commitment to the community of Black artists, executed as a glorious display of their craft and their perception…[it] hovers over the matrix of black life, takes accurate aim and explodes our sensibilities.”
Eckhardt agrees that The Black Photographers’ Annual played an important role: “The works are stunning and beautiful,” she said, “but they also answer a real need. There were not opportunities for black photographers at that time; Gordon Parks’ relationship with Life Magazine was the exception rather than the rule.”
Although The Black Photographers’ Annual was well known within the African American art community, it was not as well known within the art world at large, said Eckhardt. “It deserves to be part of the larger story when we talk about the history of photography.”
Photographs that echo paintings
The current exhibition highlights Higgins and P.H. Polk, who served as official photographer at Tuskegee University and mentored Higgins during his time there. In conjunction with the exhibition, Higgins will give a public talk at the VMFA on Feb. 16 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. to discuss his work and life.
Higgins’ introduction to Polk’s work inspired the Kamoinge photographers to pursue a second mission: to showcase African American photography from the past. The essay about Polk in the second volume begins with a quote attributed to students at Tuskegee, who said that “looking at the works of P.H. Polk was like a study in Black history.”
When he initially enrolled in Tuskegee Institute, Polk wanted to be a painter, “like van Gogh or Rembrandt.” The school discouraged that pursuit, suggesting instead that he become a house painter. After meeting with the school’s official photographer, however, Polk decided to become a photographer.
In his photographs, Polk worked to convey the diverse African American experience. Many of his images, like the 1946 photograph of his wife, Margaret Blanche Polk, have a painterly effect. When describing his work, the artist talked about making photographs “from the shadow side,” bringing form out of shadow in the same way that Rembrandt did.
The next rotation coming in May will explore the third volume, which included a variety of artists and addressed the issue of race in America. In his essay for the publication, James Baldwin wrote, “This book is heavy with the past.”
The final rotation is titled “Patience and Persistence” after a quote from an interview in the fourth volume with James Van Der Zee. The exhibition will pair works by the Harlem Renaissance photographer with those by artists of a younger generation, like Jules Allen. That exhibition will lead into the large-scale exploration of Louis Draper and the Kamoinge workshop.
The VMFA is located at 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. Admission is free. For more information, see www.vmfa.museum or call (804) 340-1405.