Formed in 1963 by 11 photographers who recognized the necessity of “a forum to address the underrepresentation of African Americans in their field,” the Kamoinge Workshop gave its members a sense of solidarity and support in a period when black Americans were the frequent subject of mainstream media coverage but rarely its author. Roy DeCarava was the group’s first director, and its early meetings and group critiques were held in his Sixth Avenue loft. Writing in Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (Schiffer), Anthony Barboza, the group’s current president, describes no-holds-barred exchanges against a background of John Coltrane records and televised baseball. Still active, if less activist, Kamoinge remains small and tight knit, with 24 members dedicated to the idea that the sharpest, most nuanced and empathetic view of a community comes from within. In the words of one of the founders, Louis Draper, “We speak of our lives as only we can.”
Timeless is the proof. At nearly 400 pages, it’s the biggest survey of the collective’s work so far, with portfolios by 14 founding members followed by a lively selection of work by members from the past five decades. Beuford Smith, Eli Reed, Radcliffe Roye, Ming Smith, and Gerald Cyrus are among the standouts, but few of the photographers here got the recognition their talent deserves. Still, “timeless” might not be the best word to describe their pictures. Predominately black and white, overwhelmingly sincere, even the most recent work falls into the tradition of the concerned photographer, which is probably why Kamoinge was featured in the opening exhibition of Cornell Capa’s International Center of Photography in 1974. Barboza isn’t alone in trying out other strategies, but much of the work here is solidly, shamelessly rooted in the past – in DeCarava, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt – and the better for it. When Beuford Smith writes, “I photograph as passionately and humanely as possible,” he’s speaking for many of his colleagues. Working almost exclusively with black subjects, they closed a distance most photographers never even acknowledged, and inspired a generation. Collectively, their vision is rich, textured, and, unlike so much recent photography, grounded in real, tough, and sometimes astonishingly beautiful life.
For another thick, juicy slice of the real, pick up Ken Light’s What’s Going On? 1969-1974 (Light2 Media), a collection of the photojournalist’s earliest work, documenting the riled-up, politicized counterculture in which he came of age. Light was 18 in 1969, when he started photographing his peers in the anti-war movement, and 21 when he became a staffer for the Liberation News Service, prime conduit for the burgeoning underground press. His book – with endpapers that reproduce letters from his FBI surveillance files – starts out looking like a student radical’s version of Joe Szabo’s Teenage and ends up with a sequence of furiously engaged reportage that recalls Danny Lyon and Larry Fink. In between, Light covers a lot of ground, from a West Virginia mining disaster to Nixon’s inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., much of it described in a disarmingly personal essay that closes the book. His work here draws on what he calls the American “tradition of protest and rebellion.” It’s not as polished or artful as later projects like Delta Time or To the Promised Land, but its rawness suits the subject. “The experience of being with other young people who struggled, lived, and worked together to create an alternative voice for our generation was idealism in action,” he writes, under an image of his long-haired younger self at a political convention with three cameras and a press badge. Not long before, Kamoinge, whose name comes from an East African term meaning “a group of people acting together,” set out on a parallel path. Both are still traveling on.