The Kamoinge Workshop, a group of black photographers born in New York in 1963 “in response to the under-representation of African Americans in the field of photography”, is now the subject of an important and exciting exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (until 28/3) . Bringing together the wide-ranging work of fourteen members from the group’s first two decades of life, the exhibition focuses on both individual talents and the philosophy of the collective; in the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, “kamoinge” actually means “group of people acting together”. Roy DeCarava – master in the subtle use of light and shadow – had an extraordinary influence on the group, as well as being its first conductor. Initially, the meetings were held in his New York loft on Sixth Street, where no-holds-barred collective critiques were thrown to the background of John Coltrane. “It is our commitment to produce meaningful representations of our time,” wrote Louis Draper, founding member and driving force of the group. “We talk about our lives as only we can.” At issue was not only the under-representation of black photographers in exhibitions and in the media, but also the predominance of images that, more or less intentionally, misunderstood and misrepresented the experience of black people. One of the first portfolios opens with this statement: “The Kamoinge Workshop gathers a group of black photographers whose creative goals reflect an interest in expressing the truth about the world, society and themselves.”
Ming Smith, “Instant Model”, Brooklyn, 1976 (from the “Coney Island” series). Image from “Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph” (Aperture / Documentary Arts 2020). © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture.
When in 1973, at Draper’s invitation, Ming Smith joined the Workshop, she became the first and for a long time the only woman to be part of it; six years later when the Museum of Modern Art acquires two of her works, she is the first black woman to enter the museum’s photographic collection. At the Whitney his work stands out above the others and is the subject of a splendid monograph, recently published by the Aperture publishing house. Mostly self-taught, Smith acknowledges that she has experienced multiple influences, from Diane Arbus to Romare Bearden, from Lisette Model a Matisse, Brassaï and DeCarava, but she has an instinctive and improvisational approach to photography, which only reached greater depth when she became, according to the definition of the critic Greg Tate, “a creative compatriot and traveling companion” of jazz musicians. In 1979 she also married one, saxophonist David Murray, and many of her later photographs were in fact taken on tour with her band. For her, “photography is mystical, spiritual, magical,” and her black and white work can be intensely impressionistic and practice-based, encompassing painting, coloring, collage, double exposure and exciting shades of blur. That said, the image above, part of a series shot in Coney Island, is unusually straightforward. Smith, who worked as a model for several years before joining the Kamoinge Workshop, titled it Instant Model, in honor of the style, modesty and quiet, vaguely amused confidence that her subject displays in being chosen from the crowd.
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Vince Aletti is a photographic critic and curator. Lives and works in New York since 1967. Collaborator of “Aperture”, “Artforum”, “Apartamento” and “Photograph”, he was co-author of “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000”, published by Harry N. Abrams in 2009, and signed “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines”, published by Phaidon in 2019.