Adger Cowans, Sun and Trees, 1959. All images courtesy and copyright ©Adger Cowans.
The Oral History Project is dedicated to collecting, developing, and preserving the stories of distinguished visual artists of the African Diaspora. The Oral History Project has organized interviews including: Wangechi Mutu by Deborah Willis, Kara Walker & Larry Walker, Edward Clark by Jack Whitten, Adger Cowans by Carrie Mae Weems, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe by Kalia Brooks, Melvin Edwards by Michael Brenson, Terry Adkins by Calvin Reid, Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby, Gerald Jackson by Stanley Whitney, Eldzier Cortor by Terry Carbone, Peter Bradley by Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe & Cannon Hersey, James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks, William T. Williams by Mona Hadler, Maren Hassinger by Lowery Stokes Sims, and Linda Goode Bryant by Rujeko Hockley. Donate now to support our future oral histories.
BOMB’s Oral History Advisory Panel includes Sanford Biggers, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Lowery Stokes Sims, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, and Jack Whitten (in memoriam).
The Oral History Fellowship is made possible by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Fiddlehead Fund, and generous individuals.
The Oral History Project is supported by Agnes Gund, the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Adger Cowans is a renowned fine arts photographer and painter whose works have been shown by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, International Museum of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum of Harlem, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Harvard Fine Art Museum, Detroit Art Institute, James E. Lewis Museum and numerous other art institutions. His photographs were highlighted in the exhibition, Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001. Cowans was awarded the Lorenzo il Magnifico alla Carriera in recognition of a Distinguished Career at the 2001 Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art. In 2015, Glitterati, Inc. will be publishing a book of his work.
Cowans attended Ohio University where he received a BFA in photography. He furthered his education at the School of Motion Picture Arts and School of Visual Arts in New York. While serving in the United States Navy, he worked as a photographer before moving to New York, where he later worked with Life magazine photographer, Gordon Parks and fashion photographer, Henri Clarke. The New York Times described Cowans’ work as “Boldly inventive and experimental … the artist is a craftsman to his fingertips.”
Funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts with The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, with additional funding from the Dedalus Foundation and New York Community Trust, as well as A G Foundation and Toni L. Ross.
BOMB’s Oral History Advisory Panel is Sanford Biggers, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, and Jack Whitten.
Carrie Mae Weems It is I.
Adger Cowans How you doing?
CMW It’s your sister calling (laughter).
CMW So, I was so freaked out, bummed out when I got home—I sent the recorder back, and they took it to whomever they needed to take it to, to the transcriber, and there was nothing on the tape.
CMW So it was crazy, but it’s fine, because it gives us time to revisit some things. Based on that last conversation that we had at UMass, are there any things that you want to talk about, that you want to be remembered for?
AC What I want to be remembered for? Ugh…
CMW Well, but you understand what I mean, in the broader scan of things, since this is going to be preserved in an archive, right? Maybe we’ll come back to it at the next session. What it is that you would want someone to really know about you, in the final analysis?
AC I mean, that’s why you ask a question and I give you an answer. ‘Cause I can talk about a lot of things: I can talk about the beginning, I can talk about now, I can talk about how I feel about my work, how other people feel about it, all of that. It’s all in there. When you talk about what I want to be remembered for, my main concern in photography is staying at the forefront of change. I started by doing documentary-style work, and then I went into the movies, and personal expression, nature, water, light, and all that. And now, I’m trying to figure out–I want to show things that people have never seen before, that come from outside the mind. I try to deal with what’s going on inside of me, what I call “real time” images. Right now, it’s light, reflections, the shape and the form of that. And then there are some interesting images that play on the subconscious and dreams because there are images that you’re not necessarily used to seeing every day. It’s like the images of water. Some people see happy things, some people see sad things. Some people see ghostly images; some people see masks. It just depends on your visual history as to what you see or feel about an image.
Adger Cowans, Tree and Hat, 2012. Coypright Adger Cowans.
CMW Your psychology and what pulls you to certain kinds of images.
CMW So based on everything that you’ve been involved in, in your own history in relationship to photography and what you’ve made, what is it that you actually think about your work now?
AC Well, I don’t think that much about it. I just do the work. That’s my main concern. If I stop to think about what it is and what I’m doing and what it means, it might interfere with my process. Because when you start to aggrandize yourself, you lose something on the other side. What you are remembered for, or what people think about your work is what it is. What you think about it–
CMW Right, right. You can’t control it. You can’t control that. But you actually framed the question: What is it that you think about your work? Not according to anybody else’s rules or formulas or understandings, but what is it that you think about what you’ve produced over the course of–how many years–that you’ve been making photographs?
AC Well, it’s been since I was fifteen. I’m seventy-seven now.
CMW Go baby.
AC (laughter) That’s me. I hope to get up to a hundred and twenty before I’m ready to leave.
AC No, I’m serious, because the artist’s life, for me, is not so much public. When you start getting too public, and start doing too many things, you lose that connection that you have with your spirit in terms of your work. That’s my own personal feeling. Now, I’m not saying it’s true for everybody–but for me, I have to stay very close to nature, to the natural movement of the universe, to things that have to do with living. And then the experience comes out of that.
CMW Do you think of yourself as a spiritualist?
AC Well, I mean, come on. What’s that? (laughter)
CMW It’s important for you to be in touch with and close to nature, your ideas about light. I remember being on a panel with you where you talked about the presence or the absence of discernible light in a photograph. I think of this as being real qualities but they’re also deeply spiritual qualities.
AC Well, everybody has their idea of what spiritual is—especially in this age of meditation, etcetera. But for me, what I consider spiritual is the fact that I can connect to that invisible part of me, that inner voice. I don’t have anything to do with where that comes from. I can only feel it. It’s like when you create a work of art, you get out of the way and allow the work to happen.
AC Because it is a feeling-sense to you, and in that sense, you could say that I am a spiritualist in essence. I have always been involved in the idea that work comes from the spirit and the artist is a translator. I don’t know. Whatever you make of it. Life … I try to live my life in what I consider to be the natural way, to eat the right food, which is mostly vegetables, and think the right thoughts, and keep working on the dreams that I have. The outside world and the reaction to that is just something you deal with every day. But what’s inside is the more important world for me, because that’s where everything happens. Not what you say and do, so much as what you think, that reality.
CMW Mm-hm. What are you thinking about? Often, as an artist, I spend a certain amount of time in the morning just thinking about the coming day and what it is that I need to work on. At a certain point, I realize that it’s not necessarily what I’m thinking about, but I’m wanting to see something that I’ve only seen in my mind’s eye actually materialize in the real world. That’s what gets me out of bed and into the studio. And it’s a sensory thing; it’s not necessarily a practical thing. It may take a while for that photograph, that image to be realized, but it starts from this very deep place or sense that’s beyond intellect. And I was wondering your notions about light and light readings. What are you thinking about? What are the things that get you up in the morning and into the work?
AC Well, the thing that gets me up is, you know, morning. (laughter) It depends on how I’m feeling. It’s all about feeling. Even taking a photograph, for me, it’s about a feeling, not what I’m seeing. Not even so much what I conjure in my mind. Because those images are only in my mind until they become a reality in the so-called real world. So it is the thought, and then you get these images, and you think about them, and sometimes you don’t even think about them, they just happen in your mind. You have an experience and then you get something happening in your mind. You get a feeling, you get a picture, you get an idea, you get a thought, and maybe it materializes and maybe it doesn’t. And then you have thousands and thousands of thoughts every day. Some of them go right by, but some of them, the ones you have the strongest feeling about, you might take reaction to them. I try to start my day, every day, with my meditating. That’s the first thing. I empty my mind, and that’s really hard, because there’s a lot there that you have to deal with. But I think just sitting quietly for an hour every morning before I make any moves about the day is best. I try not to think about what I want to do that day, I try not to think about what I did yesterday, I try not to think about what I should have done, or didn’t do, or how I should have reacted to something that somebody said to me. I try to just clear everything out of my head so that space can be filled by spirit—that’s when answers come. I might see something in the studio that I want to photograph because I see it then and now. I didn’t think about it, you know. I got up one morning and the sun was shining so, so bright and reflecting off of things, and I got this idea, “How can I photograph light?” Just light. And that started me off on a quest of how could I capture this light that was bouncing all over the place and wasn’t in one place, it was everywhere like reflections off water. I said, “How can I capture that image?”
CMW Was it spring, or summer, or fall? What season was it?
AC It was in the spring, when the light comes in here real strong. So then I got up and I started fiddling with things and thinking, Well, what if I do this, what if I do that … and then I started playing with things in the studio. And all of a sudden, I was able to see how I could capture, in an image, this light that I was feeling and seeing. It took me six months to work it out like I did, and then that spread into a whole bunch of stuff. Because people never think about light itself: What is the picture of light? What is the image of light? What is the image of water? Where are the spirits in water? All those things, the movement of things … people talk about wind, but you can’t see the wind. You see what the wind does. It blows the trees, it blows with water; it blows in your face, and does whatever. But nobody has ever seen the face of the wind.
Adger Cowans, Moments for Billie, 1965. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW You know, maybe about ten years ago on Labor Day, my husband and I were reading in bed and there was no prediction for any severe weather that night. My husband fell asleep, and I was sitting up reading—I think I was reading. And I heard the trees in my yard rustling. So I looked out the window, and Adger, I swear, I saw the wind march through my yard. Ten minutes later, we had the most horrific storm that they have ever had in the city of Syracuse. It was unbelievable. I actually saw the march of the weather through my yard. I woke my husband up. I said, “Honey, something is going on.” I’ve never seen it before and I’ve never seen it since.
CMW But there are these qualities about nature, about light, about wind—I have one of your beautiful photographs that I got from you a few years ago of clouds and rain on a windowpane, that I absolutely love. And the thing that I love about that piece, the thing that I love about looking at water, and these essences, these raw materials of life, is that they transport me someplace else.They transport me to the eternal–to a sense of the eternal and the ephemeral simultaneously. Do you understand what I mean?
AC I’m right there with you.
CMW You know?
CMW So, you taught me … All I can say is that I remember sitting on a panel with you, long ago, fifteen years ago in Baltimore. We were judging photographers’ works. And you kept saying, “But there’s no light in the picture. There’s no comprehension of light in the photograph.” So this understanding about the power of light, and of course, photography is drawing with light. “Drawing with light” is actually what it means. That idea, I think, has been paramount to you for a very, very, very long time, almost from the moment I met you, not only meeting you personally, but meeting your photographs. The way in which you use light as a descriptive force in the work actually sets you apart from a number of photographers that I can think about.
CMW So let’s take a giant step back. I think we should start with talking again about your family, and then we will move on to other issues of photography, and yourself in the history of photography. Tell me the names of your mother and your father, your sisters and brothers, but first, your full name, where you were born and the date.
AC My full name is Adger after my father, Wilbur after my uncle, and Cowans is the family name. My mother’s name was Beatrice Watson, before she married my father. His name is Adger Watson Cowans. My father was a butler and a jack-of all-trades. My mother played the piano; she was an amateur photographer, and recited the poetry of Paul L. Dunbar. She was a housewife, but during World War II, she worked as a riveter on airplanes. My mother’s full name is Beatrice Louise Watson Cowans. My sister was older; she was the next in line, the first baby. Her name was Narcissia Virginia. Adger Wilbur Cowans, Harold James Cowans, Vincent Stephen Cowans, and Bradley William Cowans.
CMW So you had, what, five brothers and sisters?
AC Well, one died. My sister next to me died at three months old of pneumonia around 1940. I was told that the hospital would not admit Negroes. So there were four boys and one girl, Narcissia Virginia. Narcissia is from my great aunt on my father’s side, and Virginia for my aunt Elizabeth Virginia on my mother’s side.
CMW And where were you born?
AC I was born in Columbus, Ohio. September 19th, 1936.
Adger Cowan’s parent’s wedding portrait, c. 1932
CMW Seventy-seven. And gorgeous, a gorgeous man.
CMW So, I know that we’re going over some material that we talked about before but tell me, give me just an overview of how you came to photography.
AC Well, my mother was an amateur photographer; my uncle Wilbur was an amateur photographer. And my aunt Elizabeth, she bought the first Polaroid camera when it came out, years ago. I was a kid. My mother was an avid picture-taker and on days when I was really down, I would go in the front room, and into this desk where my mother kept her books of photographs. There were lots of them. She had maybe eight or ten books, big books, filled with photographs of her life and her family and everything. And I would look through these pictures. They always made me feel good, to look back at my uncles, and their friends, and their wives and families and stuff. I didn’t know at the time that I was being created into a photographer but I enjoyed it. I never thought about being a photographer until I was in high school and I took a course—I liked it, but I wasn’t thinking about that as a career. I was a musician. I studied music from the time I was little right on up. I had a scholarship and everything to Capital University in Bexley, Ohio. And then I opened up this magazine one day and learned that Ohio University gives a degree in photography. I showed it to my mother and my father who said, “Oh, you know, Kodak has cameras, you send in the film and everything. You shoot it, send it back, and they send you the pictures.” (laughter) This was back in the ’40s and ’50s. You know, I can have a job! Photojournalist. Big deal. So anyway, my mother supported me and I went to Ohio University because it was the only school at that time that gave a degree in photography.
CMW But you started with music. Piano?
AC I played for years. I played piano and I had a little band when I was in college, we traveled around the local clubs. Capital University was giving me a full scholarship to go there, but they wanted me to go back to high school and take a semester of English and math and get those grades up, because my math and English were really bad (laughter). It’s tough, you know.
CMW The photographer’s lament.
AC I said no. I didn’t want to go back to high school. And my mother had a fit because she said, “You know, this is a great opportunity. There are not very many colored people that would get this kind of honor, a four-year scholarship in music to Capital University.” At that time, Capital University was all white. There were no black people out there. My teacher, Mr. Fratag, taught me a new method of playing the trumpet. My uncle gave me his e-flat trumpet that I played from eighth grade.
CMW That’s in Columbus, Ohio.
AC It was in the white part of the town of Bexley. So, anyway, I didn’t go back and then I saw this thing about photography at Ohio University. I didn’t even think about it seriously. I just wanted to get out of the house and go to college out of town. Photography became much more than I ever thought it would be in years to come, after that.
CMW But you also did photography in the Navy or the Army?
AC Yes, I was out of school by then and I did photography in the Navy [from the end of 1958 until November 1960. I had enlisted in the Navy Reserves while I was in high school.] I used to run around and hang out with an older friend of mine who was a photographer, who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier and all of the black newspapers. His name was Roosevelt Carter. He used to take me to different places because in those days, you had a Speed Graphic 4x5 camera. They had these walkie-talkie radios and they’d say, “You have to go to this place or that street, there’s something going on.” And he’d drive over and take pictures and then send them to the newspaper. So I got to hang out with him in his car when he’d be riding around and it was fun. But I wasn’t ever thinking about that as a life’s work or a career, or about being an artist. It just was something cool to do. One day Roosevelt Carter took me to a shoot; I was just a kid and they were doing the news. Right there, it was in somebody’s basement; they’d put paper up. And this pretty girl comes in and she takes all her clothes off and throws them on a chair. Well, I didn’t know what to do.
CMW She was naked?
AC She was naked. And they were saying, “Okay, baby, do this, do that.” Oh man, I was sweating. Roosevelt said, “What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “I’ll be right back.” I was so nervous.
AC I had never seen a naked woman. I was…
AC Anyway. My uncle Wilbur was a terrific photographer and he would come home sometimes and show different pictures that he was shooting. I saw some of the first color photographs that he did. He colored photographs with Marshall’s Photo Oils. So photography was kind of all around me. My mother was taking pictures of us all the time. I just grew up with photography. But it was only after I went to school that I thought about it being a career.
CMW There was a very important teacher in your life that you met when you went to Ohio—
AC —Chuck Stewart also graduated from Ohio University.
CMW Oh, I didn’t know that.
AC Yes. Before I did. I didn’t know that until years later. But at Ohio University my teacher was Clarence H. White Jr., whose father, Clarence H. White Sr., was part of the F:64 group; they used to shoot so everything was sharp. That’s that whole West Coast group. So I was taught photography as an art.
CMW Uh-huh. But this particular teacher, Mr. White, also introduced you to really important ideas in photography and to Gordon Parks. Is that right?
AC No. My teacher didn’t introduce me to anybody. He just was the teacher. (laughter) I had three teachers: Clarence H. White Jr., Betty Truxell, and Walter B. Allen. The sensitive, more sensual side, I got that from Walter B. Allen. He’d been a beatnik; he was a real down guy. My father was carrying on about me doing this photography, and my uncle said, “Why don’t you find somebody black who’s doing what you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know anyone. They’re all white.” And so I asked my teacher, and Walter said, “I think there’s a black man at Lifemagazine. His name’s Gordon Parks.” That year they put out an issue, I think it was 1955—Lifephotographers—Gordon Parks was on the back cover. So I wrote him a letter and told him I was a junior at Ohio University and I was coming to New York and I’d like to meet him. And he wrote me back. Everybody was surprised. He wrote me back, he said, “Yeah, yeah.” And I called him when I came to New York, and that’s how I met Gordon. And when I got out of school, I worked with him at Life magazine.
CMW How old were you when you met Gordon Parks?
AC I was probably eighteen.
CMW You told me this really beautiful story of going to New York. You stayed at the YMCA. And then you called Gordon on the phone, and he asked you where you were, and when you told him, he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no.”
AC Yeah, he said, “Get out of there. Come up.” I went up [to meet him]; at that point, I hadn’t really seen him physically. So I’m standing there at the White Plains train station waiting for him to come and I see this powder blue Corvette, white interior, top down, this black man with shades on, smoking a pipe.
AC I was like, “Oh, this is the shit!” It was awesome. And then he had a drive around driveway and a split-level house and a swimming pool, all of this stuff in White Plains.
CMW It was bad. He was late. My brother was late.
AC I was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do. I want to be a photographer. Yeah.” (laughter) “I’m going to work at Life magazine!”
CMW And so, what did you do with Gordon? Did you start working with him that first summer that you met him?
AC Well, that summer we did about four or five jobs. We photographed this famous painter. I can’t think of his name. [Mark Toby] Anyway, I would carry the equipment and set it up, take the exposure, read the light meter … things assistants did at that time. And then he would shoot. He’d say, “What’s the F-stop?” And I’d tell him. And I would pack the equipment up, put it back in the car, and we’d go back to the office. That’s basically what I did.
CMW Did you learn a lot from him about technique, and style—
AC —No, I didn’t learn anything about photography from Gordon.
Adger Cowans, Black Umbrellas, 1960. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC No, when I came to New York I had a degree. I had studied photography. At that time most people who were assistants worked with a photographer to learn how to do certain kinds of things and then they became photographers. That’s the way they got on-the-job training. But I came to New York with all of that training already. I had shot with all kinds of lenses, I’d done commercial work, documentary-style, freelance work. I’d had classes with Minor White at DuPont. I knew how to take a picture and what a good picture was and I knew a lot about the technique of photography. So what I learned from Gordon, more than anything else, was not about photography, but about lifestyle: how to deal with people, how to be cool. Gordon’s big lesson was taking anger and transforming it into work. That’s what really saved him, in terms of dealing with racism and all the things he had to deal with. Not so much at Life, but he’d go and do jobs out in the South or somewhere, and he ran into racism. I think that he transposed all of that stuff into his work. That was the main thing I learned from Gordon. As far as photography, it came from several sources. But I didn’t learn how to take pictures from Gordon.
CMW You’re a beautiful, beautiful image-maker, Adger. You always have been. I first encountered your work through The Black Photographers Annual, that beautiful series of publications that Joe put together. What was Joe’s last name?
AC Joe Black? The other Joe. There were two Joes.
CMW Joe Crawford. But that’s where I first saw your work, in The Black Photographers Annual. So let me just ask you this other question, because it’s interesting to me as an artist, this idea of learning to take pictures. What does that mean to you, learning to take a picture?
AC I think being in school where we could see actual prints that Ansel Adams and Weston had made. Because of our teacher, we were privy to those things. There were no books on photography at that time. They didn’t teach from books. And looking at Weston’s photographs, to me, was a sensual experience. I felt that he was the crème de la crème. I think that Ansel Adams, with the technique that he had, was great; he’s a great photographer. I’m not taking that away from him. But Edward Weston’s surfaces, the sensual quality of the surfaces of his pictures was, to me, outrageous. The way he captured that quality … I really loved that entire thing.
CMW So, you’re looking at these photographs by Weston, or Adams, or some of the major figures of the twentieth century in terms of image-making, photograph-making—
AC —They weren’t at the time. They weren’t the great poobahs because photography had not been claimed to be an art yet. They were not touted in the art world or anywhere as “great photographers.” They were just photographers that we knew from school. Nobody was saying these guys were great.
CMW So, when you encountered their work, you encountered their prints?
AC We saw actual prints that they made.
CMW And what year are we talking about, now?
AC I was in school from 1954 to ‘58.
CMW I know that you had a lifelong friendship, ultimately, with Gordon Parks, but how long did you actually work with him in your early years?
AC Not very long, mostly that summer . Can you hear me?
CMW You walked away. Where…?
AC Yeah, I want to plug in my phone because it’s getting ready to run out of juice. So I want to continue to talk to you (laughter), but I’m trying to find it.
CMW All right, plug your phone in.
AC Keep talking.
CMW Well, hold on, I want to save this recording and make sure everything is going well. So I’ll call you back in thirty seconds. Bye.
AC Okay, bye.
AC So I worked all that summer, and then my mother called me and told me I had a letter from the White House.
CMW The White House!
AC Mm-hm, that’s what I said. “The White House? Well, open it and read it, Mama.” And she said, “Greetings from your friends and neighbors the White House. You’ve been selected as one of the very fortunate few to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States of America.”
AC I was like, “No! I’m working with Gordon Parks! No!” But anyway, I was coming to an end of working with Gordon; he wanted to get me another job, and that’s when he got me—well, I don’t know if he got it, but I went to see Henry Clarke, and I started assisting around for lots of different people. When I came back from the service, Gordon and I remained very close. I was up at the house all the time and he called me two or three times a week. There wasn’t a time that I didn’t talk to Gordon. Every week we talked about something and after Gordon Parks Jr. died in that plane crash, we really got to be close, because Gordon Jr. and I were real good buddies.
CMW You were almost like a second son to Gordon Parks.
AC He said that from time to time. He would call me the third son because we were that close. I know a lot of personal things about Gordon, which I’ll probably never talk about. I knew a lot about him as a man and as an artist. A close-up view, really.
CMW I’m sure. And I can’t even begin to imagine what that means.
AC Yeah, like father and son; having had a father and that relationship, I know that we were that close. I also worked with Ben Somoroff, Lilian Bassman, Steve Manville, and others. Avedon sent me to see some people. I worked with a whole bunch of other top-flight photographers at the time and I had some classes with Broadvitch. I’d just go and show my portfolio, and they’d tell me, “Well, do you know how to do so-and-so?” I’d learned some of the latest techniques in school. At that time, they had the Saltzman strobe lights, which went pow! But I had learned to work those and that was a big thing. Everybody was using those kinds of lights at the time—early ’60s.
CMW So beyond an art photographer, you’re an extraordinary technician as well.
AC Yeah, a lot of people hired me to do their printing. I went to work for Henry Clarke, I was in the darkroom printing and Suzie Parker—she was a big-time fashion model at that time—came in the darkroom and said, “Let me see what you’ve developed in the pictures.” She said, “Oh! You’re a very good printer.” I said, “Well, I love to print.” “Beautiful, these are really beautiful.” So I was always complimented on my printing because I was very conscious, always, of what a beautiful print is. I was influenced by Weston, as you know. Beautiful prints. Eugene Smith was another one. We [James Coralas and Paul Fusco] went to see him when we were in school. We drove up to New York and knocked on his door. He let us in. “Hey, how you doing?” In those days photographers were a much more closely-knit group in terms of talking and sharing information. Now everybody’s a prima donna, it’s not like it used to be. That whole sense of photography’s changed. Everybody’s a star now or a wannabe star. Back then, you didn’t think about having a retrospective until you were at least fifty years old. And had some books behind you.
Adger Cowans, 3 Shadows, 1967. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW (laughter) I’m interested in what you think about contemporary photography or young photographers. But before we get to that, I want to talk about your transition after working with Gordon and what started to happen with your own work within the fashion world and then the film world. You were on set with all kinds of really important photographers but you were also making photographs for magazine spreads, you were trying to work for some of the important magazines, Vogue and so forth. You told me that you’d send in your portfolio, and then people would meet you and discover you were a black man, and say, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t hire you for this job.”
AC That was a story about Diana Vreeland, at Vogue. Hallmark used to have a gallery on Fifth Avenue and they would have different shows from time to time, and my agents, Flora Caplan and Geri Charney, had gotten me a show there of my children’s photographs. Diana Vreeland saw them and she liked them so she called my agent and said, “I would like to give Adger some fashion work because I like his sensitivity with children, blah blah blah.” So anyway, Flora sent a portfolio up of other pictures and Vreeland called and said, “I’m so excited to meet Adger; there’s some things I would like for him to do for us.” So I went up that day to meet her and as soon as I walked through the door and she saw me, she said, “Oh my God. Oh, Mr. Cowans, I’m so happy to meet you but I didn’t know you were a Negro.” That’s what they said in those days. They didn’t say black. She said, “I didn’t know you were a Negro. I can’t send you … I just … that’s impossible.” Because I guess they were going down South somewhere. Well, I wasn’t ready to go down South and photograph white women, either.
AC I wanted to work for Vogue, but later, man. I wasn’t down. But anyway, she was very nice and as a little payoff deal, they let me photograph in the Vogue studios in New York, doing photographs of white women in wedding dresses. I didn’t do that very long, about six or eight months. I got tired of that.
CMW But you also worked for a period of time on Hollywood film sets.
AC Yeah, I got in the union [International Cinematographers Photographers Local 644, which is now Local 600] at the end of ‘69. At that time, there were no black photographers in New York working on movies that I knew of. I had worked one picture with Ossie Davis on Cotton Comes to Harlem. The first movie I worked on was Nothing But a Man, with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln.
CMW Oh! Right.
AC But I had gotten a grant from the Whitney people, a photography grant, as soon as I started working on Nothing But a Man. And I had wanted to go down South and photograph Medgar Evers and that whole scene. They weren’t ready to start shooting yet, so I took off and went to Mississippi to photograph Medgar Evers but I got there a few days after he was killed. It was outrageous what was going on. Bob Dylan was there, what’s his name, the other folk singer [Pete Seeger, Theodore Burchell]. They were all there, singing “We Shall Overcome” with the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. And so I took some pictures. Life magazine gave me a whole bunch of film. I told them I didn’t have any money but I’d just gotten this Whitney grant, so they gave me a hundred rolls of film and I went down South. And when I got back, Chuck told me, (in a raspy voice) “Oh man, you ain’t coming back; I’m giving somebody else the job.”
AC So I actually got to work no more than a few weeks on Nothing But a Man. But I have to say, for history’s sake, that Clayton Riley and I cast that picture, because the two guys who were producing it didn’t know who they wanted. I went to read for the part and he told me he liked my reading, but I wasn’t black enough. He said, “I want somebody who’s very dark, with a big nose and big lips.”
AC So Clayton and I said, “You know, Ivan Dixon is perfect. He’s beautiful looking, too, but he’s got all the other stuff.” And I thought, well, Abbey Lincoln, she’d never done a movie before. She was definitely beautiful. To us, she was the most beautiful black woman at the time. We called her in for a screen test and she got it, and Ivan got it, and off they went.
CMW Nothing But a Man.
AC Nothing But a Man.
CMW I am in love with Abbey Lincoln. I still am. I listen to her music often. It grounds me in a very specific space that I like being in; her music has been important to me for years. But tell me more about that time that you went down to Mississippi. Did you actually, for a period of time, work around these issues of civil rights with photography?
Adger Cowans, Leather Lounge Chicago, 1989. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC I was there with … I had met James L. Farmer, who was a civil rights activist.
CMW Yes, James L. Farmer, Junior.
AC Yeah, he was here in New York and he’d seen some of my photographs; my agent had gone by and shown him some work. And he wanted to know if I was going to be interested in going down South. I hadn’t done anything … I said, “Yeah.” So that’s how that happened. So I hung down there—I don’t know how long I was there, a good period.
CMW Like a period of weeks, or months?
AC Maybe four weeks, five weeks. A month.
CMW In Mississippi, specifically?
AC I’ve got pictures of Fanny Lou Hamer, like what the people would look like at that time, calico and slippers on, and sitting in the house. But anyway, I went down there, James Baldwin was down there … a whole lot of people. Of course, I didn’t get to know James until later but I stayed down there about a month or so. Life was going to publish all of these pictures when I came back but they never did.
CMW They never published any of the pictures?
AC They looked at them but my stuff was very personal. James Farmer pulled out about ten pictures and we thought that they were going to publish them, but they never published them.
CMW What did you think about that?
AC I didn’t mind. I was too involved, and I still am, with making pictures; being involved with photography is very personal for me. I’m not so concerned about being famous or getting the best jobs … you know. I’m more into improving myself photographically. That’s a big enough job. Fighting racism, that started later for me. I didn’t make any of these people down here on earth. And I don’t have to play any of their games or be involved with their nonsense. You can be who you want to in this world, you don’t have to play these games. This is all psychological. You can play your own game.
Adger Cowans, Two, 1963. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW So, after this period of time—
AC Oh, I got involved in the movies. Sidney Poitier was looking for a black photographer to work on a film that he was doing. I went and I met him, and he flipped through my portfolio. He was saying, “Yes, I like this, I like that.” And then he got to a picture of Diahann Carroll and he closed the book and walked out of the room. So his producer came and I said, “What happened?” He said, “I think he still has some feelings for Diahann Carroll.” They had been engaged when they did the movie in Paris called Paris Blues. Anyway, the producer sent me to see this guy at United Artists. They were getting ready to do a picture called Cotton Comes to Harlem, directed by Ossie Davis. And so I worked on that, and after that I got in the union—which was difficult, that’s another story—and then I started working on all kinds of different pictures, and with everybody. You name them, there are times I worked with them. I worked with Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Zero Mostel, Robert Redford, Calvin Lockhart, Gloria Foster, Clarence Williams III, the singer Barbra Streisand … Well, I worked with a lot of the movie stars.
CMW Wow. And you told me this great story about your relationship with Faye Dunaway.
AC Yeah, Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, a lot of different people.
CMW And then also the famous director of The Godfather trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola.
AC I worked with Sidney Lumet. I thought he was one of the best directors I ever worked with. I also worked with Bill Duke, Spike Lee…
CMW Coppola, right. Who loved working with you.
AC Yeah, well, he liked my work. I was shooting eight-by-tens off the set one day and he came by and looked at it. I said, “You can pick up a couple pictures if you like.” He took them in his trailer. (laughter) Hanging them on the wall. He said, “I like those, I like those. You’re really good.” I liked Francis as a director, but I think between Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet—Oh, Poluka, I liked him too. I learned a lot from those guys, because they were what I call actors’ directors. They were constantly revising and shooting. Nobody’s as economical at shooting as Sidney Lumet. He’d do two or three takes and that’s it. We always finished on time. We always finished under schedule. He knew what he wanted. He set up the shots.
CMW So were you living between Los Angeles and New York at that time?
AC No. I went to L.A. a lot but I did most of my films in New York. [I was living at 136 West Broadway, on the second floor.] I did a couple pieces in L.A. That was later on though. But most of the films I worked on came through New York, and then maybe went somewhere like D.C., or on one shoot with Jane Fonda we went to Morocco. They went different places but most of those films started in New York.
CMW You had a very special photographic relationship with Faye Dunaway, as well.
AC Well, I think they were all special, in the sense that once you get to know them. They treat you different, once they understand that you are a serious artist, a serious person. I remember working on On Golden Pond, and another photographer came up to shoot some pictures and she came back and showed them to Katherine Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn was looking through the pictures and she kept looking through them but she never said anything. So the photographer said, “Well, what did you think?” And Hepburn said, “I don’t like any of them.” And she picked up a picture of mine and said, “I like this.” And the photographer said, “Well, that looks like a movie still.” And she said, “Yes, that’s what we’re doing here, my dear.”
Adger Cowans, Faye Dunaway, 1970. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW (laughter) Do you have plans to do anything with all of this work that you’ve accumulated over the years, your Hollywood pictures, your civil rights pictures? Do you see them as individual projects that you would like to turn into something more specific?
AC Yeah, I’m in the process of signing the contract with a … I won’t say the name, but it’s a big photographic house, and the publisher was just up here a couple weeks ago. We’re talking about a three-volume book of my work.
CMW Great. Beautiful. And that would explore …?
AC That would explore how I went from documentary style into total abstraction. What people call abstract, but—to me, a picture has to have feeling. It’s about the feeling. I tell my students all the time at Wayne State and in Chicago, “You take a picture with your heart and not with your eyes. The eyes see what the heart feels.” That was the only way that I could teach. And I found that when people understood what that was, how to relate to that, they really did great pictures because they always dealt with how they felt before they took the picture. Some pictures just happen and you shoot it but there’s still feeling involved. And if you’re in touch with that feeling when you’re doing that work, then you’ll get what it is.
CMW So, I want to turn to your long relationship—which is, again, how I really first came to know you and your work. Not only was it through The Black Photographers Annual but it was also through your relationship with the Kamoinge Workshop. So can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the Kamoinge, when that started and what it was and so forth?
AC The Kamoinge photographers … First it was just a group of guys that met on Sundays up at Ray’s house, Ray Francis. His wife would cook beans, and there’d always be jazz playing, and we’d just talk about photography. What we liked about it, and what we didn’t like about it, and images and people doing pictures of us that we didn’t like. So we decided that we would form this group to do pictures of our own people. We felt we could do a better job in showing the truth of our people, rather than someone else coming in and photographing us because that was always in a sort of “native” vein or from somebody else’s point of view. So we formed the Kamoinge workshop. Al Fennar, Lou Draper, Ray Francis, Herman Howard, Roy [DeCarava] came in later on.
CMW I thought I heard that Lou Draper actually came up with the name, the Kamoinge.
AC Lou Draper? He was one of the founding members, Louis Draper, yeah. Anyway, that was the group. We started meeting in ‘63, and we’ve been together now forty to fifty years, something like that.
CMW Because Kamoinge’s still going on, still meeting.
AC Yeah, Tony’s the president now, and I’m the vice president.
CMW Oh, you are? Who’s the president?
AC Anthony Barboza.
CMW Oh, Tony’s the president? So what does “Kamoinge” mean?
AC It means “working together.” It’s a Kikuyu word. Everybody felt that we needed to bring somebody in who could be a mentor or somebody whose work some people in the group were trying to emulate. And so we invited Roy to come into the group and he did. He took a leadership role and we got a gallery and this and that. But he wasn’t the founding father.
CMW I see. You’re talking about Roy DeCarava.
AC He’s in the history because he is who he is. But we liked Roy a lot and we liked his style and what he was doing. The kind of thing he was doing, like Gene Smith. Roy had great empathy for African American people. He was what a lot of photographers in the group aspired to. I did to some extent but I was into photographing other things, too.
CMW Yeah, it seemed like you had a very different style, actually. It was more poetic, less documentary, and more personal. When I look through The Black Photographers Annual, it’s clear that you were very much on your own track, as it’s clear that Tony was also on his own track. The two of you are very specific …
AC Well, Tony was one of my students, as were a few other people in the group.
CMW Who was one of your students? I missed that, I’m sorry.
AC Tony [Barboza]. With Shawn Walker and a couple of other people too.
CMW Well, tell me a little bit about Lou [Louis] Draper, who I adore.
AC When I got in the Kamoinge group, they asked me to come up because I was already being published. I had had an eleven-page spread in Theatre Magazine with jazz in Newport, 1961. With Louis Armstrong on the cover. So when I came in the group, I was one of the people who was helping guys come along with their photography. How to put a portfolio together, what pictures to put in, what not to, etcetera. And Lou Draper was the other person who, I would say, was working professionally. The rest of those guys, they hadn’t done any professional work yet but they wanted to.
CMW But what was Lou doing at that point?
AC Lou Draper was teaching. He had been teaching for a while. He had done some work also … What’s his name, I’m trying to think of the other brother who’s one of the founding members. He had been down South and photographed some stuff too [Herb Raddall].
CMW I don’t have any of my catalogues close by. We’ll come back to this later. So, Lou was already teaching. Lou, and Roy, and … was John Pinderhughes in the group at that time, or Ming [Murray] Smith?
AC Later on.
CMW Well for me, as a young artist, discovering the Kamoinge workshop was very significant. It was a very important group for me and I very carefully studied everybody’s work, and then I wrote letters to a lot of the men who were in the group. That’s how I also became aware of Ming Smith’s work; she was one of the one of the few women in the Kamoinge at that time. What year did the Kamoinge start?
AC 1963. Yeah, around the same time that the AfriCOBRA group started , in Chicago.
CMW Well, it’s very interesting that you were working in both of those groups and you were both a photographer and a painter, already.
Adger Cowans, Deep Blues, 2011. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW I mean, again, I’ve been following your work for a very long time. I remember being a young girl and trying to convince someone to sell me one of your paintings for no money, because I didn’t have any, but I absolutely loved the work. Your image [etching] of Soweto was one of the fiercest images of the anti-apartheid movement I ever saw. I haven’t seen it in years, and I still remember exactly what it looks like, in my mind’s eye. It was so powerful. So this thing about the Kamoinge and AfriCOBRA…
AC AfriCOBRA. A-F-R-I, AfriCOBRA [the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a Chicago-based artist collective].
CMW What were you…?
AC See, defining your own destiny has always been my concept. I’m not a joiner; I don’t like groups. But I joined these two groups because I felt that these guys were defining their own destiny in the face of racism and bullshit. They still were committed artists and they were defining their own destiny based on their own assessment of our people, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
CMW Let’s wrap up by talking about what the Kamoinge workshop and AfriCOBRA are doing now. What are these two groups doing that keep you related to them and generally? What kind of work are they involved in?
AC Well, I’ll start with AfriCOBRA. We just had a show that closed in Chicago, honoring the work the AfriCOBRA has done over the years, and at the DuSable Museum [of African American History]. And we are in the process of publishing the definitive book on AfriCOBRA and the whole Black Arts Movement. Because I think at that time, we were the leaders of the Black Arts Movement.
CMW Absolutely. And still are. In fact, I’m putting together this public program for the Guggenheim that’s related to my exhibition opening in January, and I thought that it would be wonderful to have the group represented. I know that the playwright Paul Carter Harrison is thinking about coming and might participate on a panel or in an interview with me. And then I was thinking about Michael Harris, the artist and art historian. Who would you recommend? Who do you think would be a really great voice to represent AfriCOBRA in a public discussion?
AC Hmm, Jeff Donaldson is gone, so … I would say, probably the painters, Nelson Stevens, or Napoleon Henderson. They’re two of the oldest members. If you could get Wadsworth [Jarrell]. Wadsworth is living in Cleveland now but he is a painter and was one of founding members.
CMW When do you guys meet again?
AC Wadsworth Jarrell. I would put him number one on that list. He can talk from the Chicago point of view and he’s doing his own book right now, too, on African American art and AfriCOBRA.
CMW Is there a publisher?
AC Yeah. He was talking about it the other day. He said they’re close to its publication.
CMW Oh, that’s fantastic.
AC He had his own book. I did all the photographs of his paintings for his book. Yeah, Wadsworth, if you get over here before it’s all said and done, I can show you all this stuff.
CMW Oh my God, Adger, my life is so crazy.
AC I know.
CMW I’m just happy that my husband is away this weekend. It gives me a chance to catch up and wash my hair. (laughter) Really, it’s insane. What’s the Kamoinge workshop up to?
AC Tony’s heading it up and we already have a publisher. They’re just working on the finals, so I guess by the spring that should be out. That book’s going to show the history of Kamoinge and it’s going to list everybody who was ever involved with Kamoinge, whether they got out, or died, or whatever.
CMW Is there an archive of material representing a seminal body of work by the group?
AC Shawn Walker has most of that stuff. He would be the person because everybody else has a little piece here and there, but Shawn has all of the tapes and all the interviews and everything. Shawn has kept up with it, so he has most of that stuff.
CMW It seems to me that becomes ever more important because it’s not just an individual, it’s really a seminal group that started, almost forty-five years ago. Right?
AC Yeah. Danny Dawson might have some information too, but I think Shawn has most of the records.
CMW I think it’s important to start thinking about who would care for those records, like a repository for them.
AC We have been having discussions about that. Where this stuff is going to end up. We’re talking, at this point, with Garbo Hearne who runs Hearne Fine Arts out in [Little Rock], Arkansas. She’s doing a show for us in April and she wants to be the definitive dealer for AfriCOBRA, that’s what she said. She wants to do a catalogue and a whole bunch of other things for AfriCOBRA. She wants to be the dealer for all of the AfriCOBRA artists. She has me and she has Kevin Cole, who she deals with on an ongoing basis.
CMW The question will be, can she be sure that she has the financial wherewithal to maintain an archive and to keep it [for posterity] as a body of work.
AC Right, that’s what we’re talking to her about. I think she does have the ways and means. Her husband is a doctor and they just built a building in Little Rock, Ark and also a gallery for her to do her work, framing and books…
CMW Oh, okay.
AC It’s beautiful. And they built it from scratch; they broke the ground, the whole thing. So they have money and her husband, Archie, is going to have one of the first online auctions of African American art, contemporary work.
CMW I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that then because I’m really starting to think about some of this myself. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been looking at places like Stanford or Emory, some of the universities that have libraries—because they have the funds, the resources, and the human capital to record it all, to digitize it all, so that they can make it available online, so that people can study it from afar. It’s all of these very complicated questions. But the important thing is that it’s being discussed. You’ve had these three enormously powerful relationships. First with Gordon Parks, then with the work that you did for the Civil Rights movement, and with the Kamoinge workshop—Louis Draper, Roy DeCarava-and then AfriCOBRA. I mean, each one of these is huge. That’s a huge thing in and of itself, for one person. Enormous.
CMW Incredible. Well, of course, as you know, I adore you, I think that you’re an amazing human being, and I’m so glad that I know you. You’ve always been such a warm support for me, when very few other people were. Anthony Barboza, you, and John Pinderhughes were the three men who, out of the Kamoinge workshop, stepped forward and embraced me as an artist and as a woman. So I am forever indebted. Well, okay, that is a wrap-up for session one.
AC (laughter) Alright. It recorded this time, Hallelujah.
CMW Hallelujah. I’ve got it, it’s recording, I can see it all, I can hear it, it saves automatically. I’ll probably take some time … my soul has been troubled lately, so I’ve been going to church.
AC Your soul has been troubled?
CMW My soul has been troubled.
CMW I have this feeling like I’m always trying to catch up with myself and I really, really, really don’t like it. I feel like I’m lagging behind myself. So there’s a wonderful church that’s close by my house, led by a fierce brother who I think is interesting and really quite smart. I like him. He’s also an artist; he’s a singer. He came up as a singer, had his own group for a number of years, and then became the pastor of this church. So I’m going to go to church tomorrow and finish working on some other things, and then I think it might be a good idea if maybe we wrap up on Monday evening. How about that?
AC That should be okay with me. I’ll just go to the gym, early morning.
CMW Okay, so then, I’ll call you at five o’clock and we should be able to have a good conversation then. And what I’d like you just to think about is, what is it that’s really important to you about your own artistic production? What have you learned about yourself through your work? My work teaches me a great deal about me. It endlessly shows me what I’m actually interested in, regardless of what I say.
AC I understand.
CMW Thank you for a wonderful conversation, Adger. I’ll talk to you soon. Have a good rest of the night, darling. Bye.
AC You too. Bye.
Mick Jagger, Brazil, 1968. Copyright Adger Cowans.
CMW Okay, let’s spend like the next fifteen minutes on the phone today—a few days after Christmas, December 27th, 2013—discussing some of the things that you wanted to maybe revisit after reading the interview so far.
AC Well, when I was very young, I was very imaginative. I had a big imagination and when I got my first camera I would put it under my pillow because I thought could wake up and that it’d photograph my dreams, I really did. I’d dream a lot. I was a daydreamer. When I was in school, my teacher told my mother one time, she said, “You know Adger, he’s a good student. I call on him and he knows the answers but he is always daydreaming.” I was probably in fifth or sixth grade, something like that—it kind of stuck with me.
CMW What were you daydreaming about?
AC Well, I would be daydreaming about other things, other ideas. I would see airplanes in the sky and I would imagine being up there and traveling. You know, I would imagine being in places other than here on planet Earth. And I’d be flying around in the sky. I had a big imagination.
CMW No, no, a deep imagination, actually.
AC I really didn’t understand until I was much older that I was actually being prepared to be a visual person. When I was really little my mother used to tell my sister, like when we were on the way from church or school, “Hold Adger’s hand because you know how he is.”
CMW (laughter) Because he will float away from your ass. He will float away.
AC And I got a big bump on my head, several, from my imagination. I remember my dogs chasing me one day in the backyard and I was running away from them and I wasn’t watching where I was going, only where I was at. I thought, Oh how beautiful these dogs are running. And I ran into the house and bloodied my head and mother said, “Well, it is your own doing boy.” Well, we were really running great.
CMW Were there other things about the first part of the interview that you wanted to revisit?
AC Oh that was all pretty clear. I just wanted to talk a little bit about some people. You know like Morris Gordon—a photographer who worked at Western Electric. He invited me in 1967 to Coral Gables for—I don’t know what you would call it—a world hoedown on photography. It was mostly Life photographers. And he invited me because he saw a photograph of mine that he liked very much. Anyway we got there and he called us “the young lions.” I guess the only two young people who were there were me and Jerry Uelsmann. It was in Coral Gables, Florida and I got up and Morris Gordon introduced me and I showed my work. And I showed some of my documentary, but mostly my water photographs. Well, when I sat down you could hear a pin drop. Nobody said anything. So afterward they had a little thing. Everybody was talking and all the Life magazine photographers were down in front talking about, you know, photography and documentary, blah blah blah. And somebody said, “What about ‘the young lions’ back there? You guys have anything to say?” And I got up and I said, “Everything is image to me. Everything.” And I sat down. And everything was quiet for a few moments and Jerry got up and said, “I just want to say that I agree with Adger.” And he sat down. And I thought that was great. Afterward, we were outside and Ken Heyman came over to me. He was a documentary guy. He used to let me do some prints in his dark room. He had a fabulous dark room. He lived on Park Avenue and Forty-Fifth Street somewhere and he would let me make prints in his dark room because he liked my photographs. Ninth Avenue money, fabric trade. And he was at that thing and he came over to me and said, “Adger, they are not going to understand the kind of stuff you got.” He said, “I like it, but don’t say anything to them at all.” And I said, “That’s okay. I don’t mind. That’s cool.”
CMW Well what’s interesting to me about you, unlike any number of the other photographers that I know from your Kamoinge group is that–
AC –Did you know about the Heliography Gallery?
CMW No, I did not.
AC The Heliography Gallery was supported by Paul Caponegro and Carl Chiarenza in Boston. They had a philosophical thing to it; their concept was, your work has to reflect you. You know it was personal work as opposed to commercial work. And let me see, there was Jerry Uelsmann was in the gallery, Eugene Smith—
CMW Oh, okay so you were working with all the surrealists.
Adger Cowans, Geometry of Light, 2012. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC Paul Caponegro, Carl Chiarenza, Scott Hyde…. I got a write up in The New York Times in 1961 about that show and that was really the first gallery that I showed in. But this was the idea that photography was art. By that time the gallery was on Lexington Avenue in New York City, but it was started by Paul Caponegro and Carl Chiarenza in Boston.
CMW I see. And a number of those people were actually living in Boston.
CMW You’ve had a really expansive career that spans many genres of contemporary photography, from the commercial work to the artistic work to working with Kamoinge to this open group of imaginators and art photographers. That is one of the reasons that I was so interested in hearing you speak about your particular life as a photographer, because it’s been a multi-track investigation of photography. How did you perceive your contemporary role or even your historical role in American photography?
AC Well, I like to think, and I have been told, that I helped to forward the idea that photography is an art form.
CMW Yes. And I think that is true. In some ways that’s really your singular achievement as a photographer. Because there are thousands of photographers but only a few of them have really helped us understand the role of photography in artistic practice–and you are one of those people.
AC Well, my teachers, who learned everything commercial … I think it had to do with each. I was in school with Paul Fusco and James Karales and both of those guys became pretty well known in the history of photography. Paul Fusco did the book–
CMW Oh, right, yes, the book of RFK photographs.
AC James Karales did the book on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther–that famous shot of his of people marching through the countryside. I think he told me at one point that the last five years of his life, that is all he lived on. The money he made from that photograph. Well, anyway, we were schoolmates and those were the kind of people that that school put out. Chuck Stewart, the jazz photographer. I think that the teachers played to your sensitivity, that is what I felt. The teachers looked for where you were at. They would teach you technique, but then when you would take your photographs and critique them, that was another story. It wasn’t about anything but the work. It wasn’t about your race or your color or your this or your that.
AC I had a couple of classes with Alex Brodovitch and [Richard] Avedon and a whole bunch of those types were in that class, because Brodovitch at that time was considered to be the big Poppa.
CMW That’s right. He was working for Vanity Fair.
AC Yeah Vanity Fair–you know he was the big–
AC Yeah, he was the man. And so I had these couple of classes with him and everyone was there. He would put up the photographs and everyone would talk about them and I put up a photograph–I had done one called Icarus–and nobody said anything! (laughter)–
Adger Cowans, Icarus, 1970. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC And after a minute you know Brodovitch says, “Anybody have anything to say?” and nobody said anything. And he said, “That’s right, there is nothing to say.”
CMW Nothing to say? Wait, wait–it’s like the quiet homage to the work.
AC You know, what do you say about an image? The image itself is only a starting point, to get you to yourself, to the viewer, you see, and that’s where you have to start–you. You have to take them on that trip. Actually, it’s in their own mind. When somebody associates with something that you do, there is a human feeling and that human feeling is what to me is art. The art-dancing, photography, painting, singing–all of that hits you in the heart. And that’s what they were saying. As time goes by and people remember–sometimes photographs are more memorable later on, and some are memorable forever because they hit a chord, and that is what it is about in all art.
CMW You know Adger, when you take that giant step back, and really look at your contribution—what is it?
AC What is it? I don’t know. I’m taking a step back–way back–and I’m looking and if somebody told me this guy did this, I wouldn’t believe it. I would say, “Really?” You know, I’m just getting started. But in terms of being a person of color, it’s important that that message to the artist—be they of any color—the fact of who I am and that I was able to partly define my own destiny…
CMW You know I’m going to be on this program in the very near future, which is kind of mind boggling, with Aretha Franklin and Berry Gordy. Now, there is nothing that I have ever thought about myself that would put me in league with or even proximity to Berry Gordy and Aretha Franklin.
AC Why not?
CMW I don’t know but it’s certainly not the way that I have thought about myself as an artist. However, in certain instances I can certainty think of you there because of the extraordinary breadth of your work. You do commercial photography and contemporary art photography and documentary, reportage–you have a really broad sweep and it was outside of the documentary canon. I have never thought of your work as documentary in the slightest, even as it referenced important historical moments. That’s what’s really interesting about you. And that there was a kind of poetic language that came along with your photographs. Your referencing the world that spoke to me very, very deeply. So I am wondering, if you were to put yourself with other artists—not even photographers but artists—working during the same time, who would those artists be?
AC Well I would think Jerry Yurgins. I don’t know what it is. He decides whatever his image is.
CMW The light and abstraction with the reference to the real.
AC You use photography to explore your mind, your interests, your feelings, your heart, your blood, your life, your death. Everything. Your emotion. My favorite saying—
CMW —It’s a wonderful world.
AC It’s the one for me. Paul Klee’s, art does not reproduce the visible; that resonated in me.
CMW But similar. Similar. I can say that the contribution of Adger Cowans has been invaluable to the history of photography. Your poetic means of articulation has been profound in relationship to that history and the thing that sets you apart from any number of photographers. I could be having a conversation with another fifty photographers but I can only have this particular conversation with you and no other. And no other. When I pull back and I think about it—because I am a few years younger than you—you were my guiding light, along with others, a guiding light into a world of visual possibility.
AC That is great.
CMW Yes, it is!
AC That makes me very happy.
CMW So, I wonder what you then think about that contribution. What is the thing that in your mind that sets you apart from all these other artists in terms of your mode of expression?
AC I do not see myself as set apart. I see myself on the shoulders of like you know, Romney and Jakes, Gordon, Roy DeCarava, Cartier Bresson, Weston, Stieglitz, Steichen.
CMW Except that none of them made the images that you made.
AC Yeah, but they made images that had feeling. They made images that continually jogged your imagination. Their work made you come to your own heart, actually. It made you feel. F-e-e-l.
CMW But for me, they not only made me feel. They explain life in different terms.
AC Okay, here we go. We are alchemy. Do you know what that is?
CMW Yes. But what do you mean?
Adger Cowans, Light Dance, 2012. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC They take a thing and make it into something else. Photographers and artists are alchemists at the highest level, I think. Are you there?
CMW Yes, I am here. I am very present. But either I am extraordinarily naive or you are not telling me what you perceive your deeper contribution to be–
AC Well, no I am not–
CMW –Because my sense of you is very, very large.
AC Life is constantly changing. One thing that we have learned as human beings is that life is always in motion even when you are sleeping, though without saying anything about the future and what it is going to be. I try to usually forget what happened in the past too. What is happening right now in the present; what brought you and I here at the same time, was destiny. You perceive in your own works of photography. You do the same thing. In the sense of, why do another lemon on the table? Even to its highest emotional thing, it is still just lemons on a table. But when any great artist takes that, and you change it, and you express your feelings of the lemons and apples on the table, then you’re putting your own emotions into it.
CMW But I would express it differently. Not all of my work, but certainly parts of my work, have had a deep impact on cultural life.
AC That’s good.
CMW That men and women around the world contact me constantly about pieces like the Kitchen Table series, like, “I saw what happened and I cried.” And I know that in my own particular way, in time, I have charted out a new territory for artistic, emotional contemplation. And I think that you have done absolutely the same thing, this idea that you talk about–feeling. It is not just feeling in an amorphous way. It is a very particular feeling; that in this artist I have found a person that articulates for me something that I could not do for myself otherwise. That is why I think that you are so important.
AC We should do a show and a book together. (laughter)
CMW But do you understand what I am saying Adger? I think of you as being a really significant artist.
Adger Cowans, 3 Shadows, 1966. Copyright Adger Cowans.
AC This has never happened in the history of photography before, where you have a man and a woman of color, who, by seeing, are working on the same thing–but on a different level–the same thing. That feeling. I am saying the world needs to see that. They should make a Hollywood movie on this.
CMW Well, all I am really saying is that you are a great, great artist, Adger, and it’s through you that I have learned a tremendous amount, more than any other photographer that I know personally. DeCarava absolutely was a marker for me but you are the other marker for me. There is something about that I want you to own. That I want you to own. What you set out to do was change the language of photography and you did it in your own very specific way. Without you the world would be a very different visual place. Yes, that’s you. That is what you have given. That’s what you’ve given me. You know, when Betsy asked who I wanted to interview, I said, “Adger Cowans, that is the person that I think was singular in his output, in his articulation of what is possible through this medium that we call photography.” It is really a descriptive device but what does it describe? So I thank you for the gift that you have offered us. You have allowed us to see the world, whether it is through the photographs that you have made of water, of clothes hanging on a line, of movie stars during your time in Hollywood with important directors like Francis Ford Coppola, to your work with Faye Dunaway. But you have allowed me to see things very, very differently and for that I am really very, very grateful.
AC I appreciate that. I really appreciate you saying it, you know, because you were right there on the pulse. And that’s great. That’s great.
CMW I am not sure what I am on.
AC I am! (laughter)
CMW But I am determined …
AC You are looking at me and I am looking at you and I am telling you, you are on the pulse. Life is a continuous beating of the heart, the soul, and the spirit, and the energy, and everything. Going 24/7 all over the world. You have found, in your way, how to put your finger on that pulse.
AC —And that’s the pulse of life. It’s great.