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Library of Congress Acquires Harlem Photographer's Archive

HOST, TAY GLASS: The Library of Congress has acquired the archives of Harlem-based photographer Shawn Walker. This will be the first collection in the Library of work by an African American photographer. Walker began shooting in the 1960’s. His photographs capture daily life on the streets of Harlem: people sitting on stoops, couples walking the street together, wearing smart hats, parades.

EMILY PISACRETA, BYLINE: John Edwin Mason is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. He says Walkers images of Harlem were unique at a time when many visual artists were misrepresenting African American life.

JOHN EDWIN MASON: So much of the photography that was made by I have to say white photographers was about African Americans embodying some kind of social problem. Shawn Walker saw African Americans as ordinary folks. You know? And what Shawn was doing especially in the 60’s and into the 70’s working as a street photographer. He still works as a street photographer. In fact he worked as a street photographer and still does. His street photography was finding beauty in the ordinary — this rare, rare seeing of African Americans as they truly were.

PISACRETA: Shawn Walker is a member of an important group in the history of photography, the Kamoinge Workshop. Why was Kamoinge formed and why was it important for a photographer like Walker?

MASON: Kamoinge Workshop was formed as a mutual aid society. It was a way for photographers to encourage and support each other in an atmosphere where they were excluded from galleries and museums and excluded from the profession For Shawn, he’ll tell you himself. Initially, he was self taught as a photographer. He hadn’t gone to art school, hadn’t had professional training, and Kamoinge was extremely valuable. He was surrounded by all these really good photographers, who know what they’re doing, who know how to see, who know how to print, you know? And who know how to develop a career, and I think for somebody like Shawn it was especially valuable.

PISACRETA: According to the Library of Congress, this collection of Walker’s photography is the first comprehensive archive of an African American photographer in the library. Why do you think it took until 2020 for that to happen?

MASON: That’s an interesting question. And I’m not sure I know the answer to it. I will say that African American photographers' archives are available in other places — the Schomburg, for instance. There is the Gordon Parks Foundation which has done a magnificent job of preserving his legacy. So, it’s not that African Americans have been entirely excluded from the archive, but they have been largely excluded from the archive. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that African Americans have in general been marginalized in American culture, and archivists and curators and historians just haven’t seen the work of African American photographers as central to the history of photography and art in the United States. Now that’s changing, and this is a sign of how importantly that’s changing. There is in fact an exhibition that’s running right now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts about the Kamoinge Workshop and Lou Draper. So, you know, we can see changes. We can be optimistic. Yeah, we can. We can be optimistic.

PISACRETA: That’s a great note to end it on. John Edwin Mason, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, thank you for joining us on Uptown Radio.

MASON: It’s been my pleasure.


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