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Love, Forgiveness, and Humility in the Photos of Adger Cowans

Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in Panic in Needle Park, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Balloons of Colombus, Ohio, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Photographer Adger Cowans hails from an historic American family. His great-great-grandfather was a Buffalo Soldier, the first all-black division of the U.S. Army formed after the Civil War. His cousin, Dr. Early Sherrard, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black division of the U.S. Air Force that fought in World War II; his story was immortalized in the film Fight for Life starring Morgan Freeman as Earl.

“To this day I carry a sense of pride, and have always tried to apply it to my art,” Cowans writes in the introduction to his monograph, Personal Vision (Glitterati). That sense of pride saw Cowans launch his career as a Navy photographer in the 1950s, bridging the tradition of service with his passion for art.

After being discharged, Cowans moved to New York, getting a job at LIFE magazine and apprenticing under Gordon Parks. Here, the world opened up as Cowans was in the right place at the right time, riding the crest of the golden age of picture magazines, before delving into the world of on-set film photography, where he worked with luminaries including Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Spike Lee.

“Adger’s philosophy of art is centered in his philosophy of life,” Tuliza Fleming, curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, writes in the book. “From an early age, his parents instilled the values of love, forgiveness, humility, and hard work.”

From his position, Cowans was at a tremendous advantage to visually shape the world in which he lived, creating a body of work that speaks to his humanistic faith in humanity. As a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop in 1963, Cowans and his colleagues, including Roy DeCarava, Louis Draper, and Anthony Barboza, made a point to create images that spoke to and of the black experience.

Perhaps the best way to describe Cowans work is to speak of its soul, of its capturing and encapsulating the ineffable, intangible, ephemeral yet eternal, essence of life, one that is as ethereal in spirit as it is tangible in silver gelatin printing. Cowans moves between genres with the precision of a master, gently intoxicating our eyes with the pleasures of the visible world.

Whether creating portraits, abstracts, or landscapes, the one constant in Cowans sensitivity to the ways in which light plays on surfaces. Like a conductor leading a symphony, he captures the moment when light comes alive, as the flesh sparkles and the shadows dissolve.

Speaking of Cowans’ mystical photographs of water, Romare Bearden observed, “Cowans invites us to see a universe in microcosm…whatever affinities directed our poet-photographer to immerse himself in the waters of life and are, as with all good artists, he has dealt convincingly with these mysteries of creation. The success of these photographs need not be explained; rather they are a cause of celebration.”

The same could be said of Cowans’ photographs of Gloria Lynn singing at the Newport Jazz Festival, of the Soweto Copper Plate Etching, of the square of black silk hanging somewhere on 136th Street. It is in the essence of pure presence that Cowans reveals the call that has guided his eye for sixty years.

Adger Cowans will exhibit at Tate Gallery in London this summer and at Hearne Fine Art in Little Rock this fall.

Black Umbrellas, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

American Edition, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Abbey Lincoln, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Actor and Director Bill Duke, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Calvin Lockart and Tommy Lane in Cotton Comes to Harlem, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Dennis Haysbert, Michelle, and Stephanie McFadden in Love Field, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Early Morning Fishing, Bali, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Eddie and Lela Rochon in Boomerang, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Faye Dunaway in The Puzzle of a Downfall Child, 1970 (1), from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Fire Island Sand Shadow, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Garth Fagan, famous for The Lion King, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Malcolm X Speaks in NYC, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Ohio Steel Door Shadow, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Rainy Day in Harlem, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

Triptych Dream, from Personal Vision by Adger Cowans © 2017, published Glitterati Incorporated

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