It was no small honor when The Exposure Group — a collective of dynamic African American photographers based in Washington, DC — presented me with their 2002 Gordon Parks Legend Award. For me Gordon Parks symbolizes excellence and achievement.
I first met Gordon in 1971 after he had finished his second movie, “The Learning Tree,” and was in preproduction for his next film, “Shaft.” He is an imposing figure, personally as well as professionally. Greeting me at the door to his Manhattan apartment, Gordon took me into his large living room with its commanding view of the East River. Surrounding us were couches arranged to augment the panoramic view, a grand piano, his photographs and paintings as well as his countless awards, piled several deep on tabletops. Some of his photographs, enlarged to 30-by-40 inches, made me feel I was in a personal museum.
I brought my first photography book Black Woman to show Gordon. Offering words of encouragement, he began to talk about the business of art. An accomplished photographer who became a staffer for Life magazine, Gordon is an equally talented musician, filmmaker, writer, poet and painter. When I brought up my passion to change the media’s perception of African Americans, he gave me a piece of advice, arresting in its simplicity: “If your ethics demand that you not perpetuate negative images,” he told me bluntly, “then don’t make them.” He went on to explain that if a photographer makes 35 dignified images and only one negative image, most editors will choose that one negative frame in a roll of 36 exposures. Only the rarest editors have the ability to overcome this societal bias.
Years later, again sitting with Gordon in his comfortable living room, our talk was on the many things that make a good photograph. My mind was racing to composition, lighting, design, all the technical aspects, but Gordon was thinking metaphysically. “Great photographs are made with the heart, not necessarily with the eye,” he told me.
Embracing this approach, I try to seek out images that make my heart smile.
On Saturday mornings in his studio along with several other aspiring artists, I listened raptly to Romare Bearden for nearly two decades. This celebrated and politically inspired artist opened his workspace and freely shared his ideas, collectively and individually. “I see that you make finger exercises, but can you make a symphony?” he said to me. Words that motivated me to dig deeper into my artistic soul. Where was I going with my work, with my message?
The moment I set eyes on Romare Bearden’s art, I was mesmerized by his treatment of strong colors and his fractionalization of time and space. I happened to be putting together my second photography book, Drums of Life, about men and wanted to include a portrait of Romare Bearden. He agreed. I showed up at his loft on Manhattan’s Canal Street and rang the bell. Three flights up, a window opened and Romare threw down keys. After climbing the three long staircases, I entered his loft and he made tea, which we drank at his kitchen table. We discovered we shared southern origins and bonded over his stories of rural Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where he had spent summers with his grandparents.
Romare, or Romy as I in time felt comfortable using his nickname, was an engaging storyteller, who often expressed ideas through his tales. One centered on a woman who cleaned the Harlem building, owned by his mother, where his studio was then located. During the harsh days of the Depression, prostitutes lined 125th Street and jingled keys to attract business. On his way to his studio, Romy encountered this particular woman jangling her keys; she called out to him, “25 cents” but, sensing his non-interest, quickly reduced her demand to “a dime,” then “a nickel” and in desperation called out “Mister, just take me.” Romy asked if she needed a job. He knew his politically active mother would want to help. The woman quickly said yes, his mother hired the young woman to clean her building, and so she began employment there. A year or so later, Romy was sitting in front of a large blank canvas stuck in a period of inactivity. From the corner of his studio the cleaning woman, broom in hand, spoke out: “Why don’t you paint me?”
Romy, turning with a dismissive expression, said nothing.
He immediately began and over time completed a painting of this woman. Romy always chose to see obstacles as opportunity, an idea he credited to French artist Georges Braque. The greater the limitation, the more creative you must become to overcome it, he liked to say.
Over the years I, too, have come to rely on these words. Whenever equipment or circumstances fail me, his words become my mantra and, with hardly a glance back, I refocus and seek out a solution by calling on my creativity to rescue me.
It saves time — and has never failed me.
I purchased my first camera in 1968 the summer before my junior year at Tuskegee and spent that whole school year shooting and picking up pointers from P. H. Polk. Once final exams were over in June, I headed to Manhattan and the nearest newsstand where I copied the names of photo editors from the mastheads of Time, Newsweek, Life and Look — all the magazines I could find that relied heavily on photographs. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement and like thousands of other students nationwide I protested against racist Jim Crow laws. But my fellow students and I looked like vicious criminals in images run by the Alabama press — strikingly different from the photographs I was making at rallies.
I came to New York to make my kind of photographs. I knew the media wasn’t going to stop printing negative images of people of color, but I hoped to contribute something positive to the visual diet. The only chance I had to do that was to learn to make pictures as compelling as those published by the best photographers.
With a portfolio of my prints in hand, I telephoned photo editors telling them I was not looking for a job; I wanted criticism. Tuskegee offered no photography courses, and I was desperate to learn more. Fate smiled on me the day I met with Look’s picture editor Sam Young. In the middle of our appointment, an energetic, impeccably dressed man with a smooth bald head burst in — he was Arthur Rothstein, Look’s director of photography.
Mr. Rothstein invited me to stop by his office and that afternoon I showed him the 20 images I considered my best work. Selecting one and placing four sheets of white paper, one on each side of the photograph, Mr. Rothstein maneuvered the papers until he had shrunk my image. It all happened in a second. “Here is the picture,” he told me. “All the other elements are in the way; they compromise the real image.” He was right. It was obvious. It was my initiation to cropping — the first time I had heard the word.
In the next hour, Mr. Rothstein introduced me to a host of visual concepts — design, balance, composition, lighting, positioning. And then he asked me: “What is your message? What are you trying to say?” At first I was reluctant to answer, fearing I would sound too idealistic, but I knew it would be a waste of his time and mine not to be forthcoming.
“Our media shows no positive images of decent black people —” I blurted out, “men and women who work hard, go to church, have respectful and loving relationships. We need images of black people that reflect the fullness of our lives.”
He looked at me for a moment, perhaps gauging the strength of my commitment. “That’s a tall order,” he said.
I nodded and pushed ahead, “Could I learn from you this summer? I need help training my eye.” I don’t know what it was that made him agree to work with me, but he did.
Day after day that summer, I returned to the Look offices. Mr. Rothstein, dressed in his trademark three-piece suits, always found time to be with me; he loved talking photography and would punch the air with his index finger to differentiate his many points. One of the very first things he told me to do was put my camera down. Use your thumb and forefinger on both hands to frame images, he directed; practice until you learn to compose your picture right in the camera. “There is no sense spending 1/125th of a second to make the picture in the camera,” he loved to say, “and then an hour in the darkroom to make it work.”
My head was reeling with all this new information so I asked Mr. Rothstein to give me a practice assignment to see how much I understood. He chose a day in the life of office messengers. Before letting me go, he discussed the importance of pre-visualization — thinking about picture possibilities — but still remaining open to discovery, being sensitive to what might unfold.
Messengers were easy to find and I tagged along with those willing to talk with me, trying to capture the urgency their jobs demanded. I shot two rolls of film given to me by Mr. Rothstein. What luxury to have real rolls — not the cheaper bulk film you had to wind yourself. The next morning Mr. Rothstein had contact sheets in less than an hour, and every frame needed improvement. He was kind with his criticism; he picked the strongest image and showed me how I could make it stronger before pointing out why my weakest ones failed.
Finding that I had not yet visited any art museums in New York, or ever, Mr. Rothstein compiled a list of painters and packed me off to the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection. He instructed me to observe subject, composition, balance and light. “It doesn’t matter if you like or dislike a painting,” he told me. “It’s important to have a reason for feeling the way you do.”
At the Museum of Modern Art, he arranged for the photography curator to show me works by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Wanting to see more, I sifted through boxes and came upon works by Gordon Parks, Marion Post Walcott and finally Arthur Rothstein. In that moment I discovered my summer teacher was not only my mentor but a famous photographer, who knew Tuskegee University very well. As a member of the Farm Security Administration, he had been assigned to document the students and faculty of my college in the early 1940s. Later still, I learned that Arthur Rothstein had helped an amazing number of photographers; they, like me, acknowledge an enormous debt to this generous teacher.
When September came and it was time for me to return to Tuskegee, Mr. Rothstein suggested our relationship continue by mail. I couldn’t have been happier.
On my last day at Look, he handed me 60 rolls of color and black-and-white film. Shoot them and send them back, he instructed; and he would mail the contact sheets with his comments — which he did for my entire senior year. His influence on me and my career continued until his death when I, like so many others, lost a cherished friend.
Passion defines Cornell Capa. The International Center of Photography (ICP) — the first private museum dedicated to photography — stands today in testament to his determination to gain respect for photography as an art. Arthur Rothstein introduced me to Cornell. It was the 1970s — the time when Cornell was working almost single-handedly to gain acceptance for photojournalism in museums and to educate the public to see it as art.
Full of Old World graciousness, Cornell agreed to meet with me at his home and office on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Every shelf, nook and cranny was crammed with books on photography; imposing file cabinets held the work of Cornell’s brother, war photographer Robert Capa whose death had made international news more than a decade earlier. Seated with Cornell around his worktable were his wife Edie and his assistant Anna Winand; here was a team tirelessly committed to changing the world’s perception of photography and already planting the seeds that would blossom in 1974 to become the International Center of Photography. I am forever grateful that Cornell invited me to attend the photographic seminars he was giving that summer at New York University. I was fortunate to see and hear photographers Ansel Adams, Bruce Davidson, Jerry Uelsmann, Yousuf Karsh, and Eugene Smith discuss their work and personal visions.
“Terrific!” I can’t help but hear that word pronounced with Cornell’s distinctive Hungarian accent. Cornell, a gifted photographer aswell as a visionary, is my friend and mentor. His well-tempered advice incorporates the use of photography as a tool for change and appreciation for the overarching issues that focus on the human spirit. In the early 1980’s when I was facing a difficult time personally, Cornell challenged me to put order and structure back into my long-term photographic mission. Because of his persistent questioning I became aware of the evolving trends in my personal work.
One fall afternoon in 1967, I was in the downstairs office of P. H. Polk’s studio on Washington Avenue in Tuskegee waiting for him to finish drying some prints.
A door closed and from behind studio curtains, the figure of Mr. Polk dashed out holding a wet print. He showed me the image and I felt reassured that at least one print was almost ready, even though he still had more film to process. He disappeared back through the curtains, but before the black fabric fell back, I caught a peek of some photographs on the inner wall. Five of these grabbed my imagination the moment I laid eyes on them. After the door closed again, I ducked through the curtains to have a better look.
Hanging crooked on the wall were pictures of rural older men and women, standing in all the pride of themselves. Although made in the 1930s, the pictures entranced me in 1967, and they hold the same power when I see them today.
The people in these photographs differed from the ones of Mr. Polk’s other works. These subjects, seemingly rural religious people, were so familiar to me. As a youngster, I had seen people with the same dignity and character in my church and among farmers.
Excitement welled up inside me, as I imagined making such a picture of my Great-aunt Shugg Lampley. My Aunt Shugg was a midwife, bow-legged and loving, who made a to-die-for blackberry pie. I envisioned a portrait also of my Great-uncle March Forth McGowan, and likewise his brother, my Great-uncle John McGowan, as well as my Uncle Bougg McGowan walking behind his plowing mule.
My inquisitiveness elicited more descriptive answers concerning the pictures on the wall as well as some others that Mr. Polk uncovered and blew dust off. I sat there reliving an era that had passed before me so quickly when I was still a child. The era was gone, but thanks to photography these people seemed to live on. I was staring into their world and loving every minute of it. For me, these photographs held power. I felt drawn into the lives of the subjects.
I was impressed by their faces and grateful that Mr. Polk had the skill to record them for posterity. Although they may have been dead, their image was there alone in the room with me. I felt satisfied. I was enriched.
I needed a camera. My confrontation with his pictures from the 1930s had unleashed another kind of yearning: I wanted to become a photographer.
For me, Mr. Polk’s photographs epitomize the rural south of my youth. With his camera, he was able to bring out the heroic qualities of his subjects — capturing their true essence. He simply liked people and let them know it.