By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Adger Cowans earned his degree in photography from Ohio University, one of the very few institutions of higher education that offered this art degree to Black students in 1958. The university recognized that photography is more than a hobby, more than a photojournalist’s recording of an event, more than a mechanical craft — it is an art form. At least in the right hands with decent equipment, with a practiced eye, and a full heart.
That’s how Adger Cowans sees it anyway, when he reflects on his lifetime filled with taking photos, making paintings, writing poems, and even, once in a while, embroidering banners — all parts of pursuing his art as he understands it and as he listens to his inner voice.
He’s not done yet; he’s thinking about experimenting with some new-to-him forms of photography and also traveling to Africa, as he said in a recent panel discussion at the University of Minnesota led by Deborah Ultan, Arts Librarian & Curator for the Performing Arts Archive and the Francis V. Gorman Rare Art Books & Media Collection at the U of M Libraries.
Yet for the rest of us, time is short to take in the very illuminating exhibition of samples from his life’s work now on view at the U of M Andersen Library. Don’t miss it. Catch the exhibit reception on Jan. 19 or drop in during Andersen Library’s open hours. The exhibit will close Jan. 31.
You’ll see Hollywood stars, caught in still photos taken on sets; you’ll catch reflections, shadows, movement, and light; you’ll glimpse the inner energy that moves Adger Cowans to continue creating into his 80s.
Adger, in explaining his training in photography, said that while he was still in college, he wrote to the only Black photographer whom he had heard of. Gordon Parks replied: “When you are out of school, call me.”
Cowans first moved to New York City, then contacted Parks, who quickly found out that the young photographer did not know what he was going to do.
“You can work with me at Life magazine and live here with me and my family,” Cowans remembers. Thus Cowans began his apprenticeship as a photographer, which is the way photographers were educated in the early 1960s.
Parks shared with Cowans insights into some of his famous subjects. Of Muhammed Ali, he remarked “how humble he was … he was very open to people and also very outspoken.”
Parks’ images of Malcolm X have been seen by many. Parks said photographing Malcolm X and the American Muslims for Life was “really exciting, because not everybody really loved Malcolm X,” Cowans remembers. Some Black people said: “‘You are going to make trouble for us with the white people.’” Parks engaged in a week’s worth of discussions before the group would let him in to photograph them.
Cowan later joined a Black photographers group, Kamoinge (the name means “group effort” in the African language of Kikuyu), with the mission of portraying the black community with dignity and positivity. Apprenticeships continued to be important. Cowans said of one young colleague: “I gave him a 28 millimeter lens, and he never looked back.”
He added: “I was trying to get them to understand that each of them has their own vision. … Ultimately, what is your spirit telling you?
“Whether you are an artist, a human being, it doesn’t matter. What is your destiny? What is your point of being here on the planet?”
Come and see the exhibit, which includes the art book “Adger,” by 21st Editions, as well as an exciting set of photos, sketches, paintings, and correspondence from Adger Cowans’s archive. And reflect.
What: “The Eyes See What the Heart Feels: From the Archives of Photographer & Painter Adger Cowans”
When: Sept. 12, 2022 through Jan. 31, 2023
Where: Elmer L. Andersen Library, main gallery
Hours: Open during building hours at Elmer L. Andersen Library
Curator: Deborah Ultan
Exhibit designer: Darren Terpstra