SHAWN WALKER, “Neighbor at 124 W 117th St, Harlem, New York,” circa 1970-1979. | Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

 

HARLEM IS BOTH HOME AND SUBJECT for photographer Shawn Walker. For more than 50 years, he has been documenting the storied neighborhood. He was born there, lives and works there, and throughout his career he has been making artful images of Harlem—documenting its transformation over the decades and capturing the people, places, and scenes that distinguish the African American community.

His life’s work forms an archive nearing 100,000 items, a collection of photographs, negatives, and transparencies acquired by the Library of Congress. The acquisition includes Walker’s entire archive and substantial holdings representing the Kamoinge Workshop, the Harlem photography collective he helped found in 1963.

Made with a gift and purchase agreement, the acquisition is historic. While the Library of Congress has been collecting photography by African Americans for more than 100 years, Walker’s collection is the first comprehensive archive of an African American photographer to enter the national library and be made publicly available. The news was announced Feb. 19.

“We are very pleased to celebrate the addition of these two important collections to the Library’s extensive representation of African American life in the United States, from photography’s earliest formats to the present day,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement.

“We are very pleased to celebrate the addition of these two important collections to the Library’s extensive representation of African American life in the United States, from photography’s earliest formats to the present day.” — Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden

A nexus of black culture, generations of photographers have framed Harlem in black-and-white. Walker also utilizes the medium to dramatic effect.

Dating from 1963 to the present, his work visualizes a half century of Harlem, depicting the charm and challenges of everyday life, parades and celebrations, and important cultural and political figures such as Maya Angelou, Thelonious Monk, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, and late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

The Kamoinge materials were donated by Walker. Founded in Harlem, the collective of African American photographers came together in the wake of racial discrimination from mainstream publications. Members critiqued and nurtured each other’s work and took seriously the need to contrast misrepresentations of the black experience in the majority culture with their own images.

The elders of the group were Louis Draper and Roy DeCarava, who served as the first director of Kamoinge. The group mounted exhibitions, produced a series of self-published annuals promoting their work, and remains an active collective today.

Walker has served as the group’s historian, consciously preserving materials that document its legacy. The Kamoinge items entering the Library of Congress collection include ephemera, audio recordings, and photographic prints by several members including Draper, Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, and others.

“I collected these materials over the years since joining Kamoinge as a founding member (with the least amount of photographic experience) in 1963,” Walker said in a statement. “Kamoinge was my Sorbonne, with my introduction to and discussions and lessons on film and printing, photography, jazz, painting, literature and the other arts.”

“Kamoinge was my Sorbonne, with my introduction to and discussions and lessons on film and printing, photography, jazz, painting, literature and the other arts.” — Shawn Walker


SHAWN WALKER, “Trick-or-treaters,” circa 1970s. | Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

 

GROWING UP IN HARLEM, Walker was introduced to photography by his uncle. After earning an BFA from Empire State College, he pursued a career in photography. While his focus has been Harlem, Walker has photographed in cities throughout the United States—including New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005— and internationally.

He has exhibited and lectured widely, and his work is represented in many institutional collections. Over the years, he has also taught at New York University and the International Center of Photography.

His life’s work is now represented in the nation’s library, joining an array of collections depicting African Americans, from the NAACP and W.E.B. Du Bois’s materials from the 1900 Paris Exposition (including about 220 photographs), for example, and images by many other African American photographers, all housed in the Prints and Photographs collection.

A limited selection of photographs by Kamoinge members, such as DeCarava, Barboza, and Cowans, were previously part of the library’s holdings, which also include figures such as Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Roland Freeman, Dawoud Bey, Marilyn Nance, and Sharon Farmer. The Walker archive is distinguished by the fact that it is comprehensive and career-spanning.

According to the library, the institution has acquired a limited number of single photographer archives, including those of Frances Benjamin Johnston (spanning 1888-1950s), F. Holland Day (1895-1915), Arnold Genthe (1896-1942), Theodor Horydczak (1915-1959), Toni Frissell (1930-1970), Robert McNeill (1930s-1990s), and Bob Adelman (1950-2000), whose subject was the Civil Rights Movement.

An African American photographer, McNeill was born in Washington, D.C., where he lived and worked for most of his life. In addition to his photography, the archive of about 27,000 items includes the papers of other McNeill family members, spanning the 1840s-1990s. The MacNeill collection is not digitized and not available publicly due to restrictions on the collection.

By contrast, Walker’s archive is four times the size and focuses entirely on his photography practice. He and his wife maintain rights to the images during their lifetimes, but the archive will be partially digitized and made accessible to the public for research.

“A lifetime resident of Harlem, I have tried to document the world around me, particularly the African American community, especially in Harlem, from an honest perspective so that our history is not lost,” Walker said. “I am pleased that both my own photographic artwork and also some of the materials I have collected in my role as a cultural anthropologist will have a permanent home in an institution that will make them available to the public. I am so satisfied that this work has found a home in such a prestigious institution and can finally be shared with the world.” CT

 

IMAGE: Top right, Portrait of Shawn Walker. | Photo by Jenny Walker

 

FIND MORE A traveling exhibition, “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” is currently on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond

FIND MORE about photographer Robert McNeill

 


SHAWN WALKER, “African American Day Parade, Harlem,” 1989. | Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

 


SHAWN WALKER, “The Invisible Man Series: Dedicated to Ralph Ellison,” 1990s. | Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

 

BOOKSHELF
“Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” documents the traveling exhibition organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge” was recently published. “The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family” is a collaboration between poet Ntozake Shange and photographer Frank Stewart with fellow members of Kamoinge. “Louis H. Draper: Selected Photographs” was published in 2015. Two recent volumes document the work of Adger Cowans: “Art in the Moment: Life and Times of Adger Cowans” and “Personal Vision: Photographs.” From Sherry Turner DeCarava, “Roy DeCarava: Light Break” and “Roy DeCarava: the sound i saw” were published to accompany exhibitions presented in 2019 at David Zwirner Gallery. A collaboration between Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” was first published in 1955 and reissued in 2018.

 

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