On Wednesday, the Library of Congress announced its acquisition of photographer Shawn Walker’s archive of nearly 100,000 pictures, negatives and transparencies. Per a press release, the purchase—centered on life in Harlem between 1963 and the present—marks the first time the Washington, D.C. institution has added a “comprehensive archive” of works by an African American photographer to its collection.
Walker, now 80, is known for taking images that document daily happenings in the Manhattan neighborhood, from parades and celebrations to poverty and policing.
“He showed children playing on playgrounds. He showed people cooking in their kitchens. He showed people looking happy, people looking sad,” says curator Beverly Brannan, who helped pick up the archive from Walker’s Harlem apartment, to WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak. “People were out looking happy, looking strong. And that was one of the things he wanted to capture in his photographs—what he saw as people enjoying life. That’s not what was being shown in the magazines in the ’60s.”
In addition to recording life in Harlem, Walker has photographed African American icons including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Jesse Jackson, as well as such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans-post Hurricane Katrina.
Walker took up photography as a teenager after receiving a camera for his birthday, according to the Washington Post’s Kelsey Ables. In 1963, at age 23, he became the founding member “with the least amount of photographic experience,” as he notes in the statement, of the Kamoinge Workshop. This collective, which derives its name from Kenya’s Gikuyu language and means “a group of people acting together,” was launched by African American photographers who faced discrimination at mainstream publications.
Kamoinge members critiqued each other’s portfolios, offered mentorship and organized exhibitions, according to a webpage dedicated to the collective. Walker, who served as the group’s historian, donated 2,500 artifacts from the Kamoinge Workshop to the Library of Congress alongside his personal photography archive. The Kamoinge collection features prints by members such as Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, Beuford Smith and Ming Smith.
“I am pleased that both my own photographic artwork and also some of the materials I have collected in my role as a cultural anthropologist will have a permanent home in an institution that will make them available to the public,” says Walker in the statement. “I am so satisfied that this work has found a home in such a prestigious institution and can finally be shared with the world.”
The Library of Congress typically collects around just a dozen or so works by individual photographers; this allows it to provide what Brannan describes to DCist’s Colleen Grablick as a “wide range and diverse collection for researchers.” Prior to the Walker acquisition, reports the Post, the library housed seven comprehensive, single-photographer archives.
As Brannan explains, the Harlem photographer’s oeuvre fills a gap in the institution’s coverage.
“[W]e did not have a large group of African American photographs from the late 20th century,” she says to the Post. “This fit a need.”
Walker’s past work drew inspiration from Romare Bearden’s collage illustrations and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic philosophy of capturing the “decisive moment.” More recently, reports ARTnews’ Tessa Solomon, the photographer has adopted a Surrealist style, capturing abstract details of reflections in puddles and shattered windows.
In the coming months, the library will work to organize the archive, digitizing selections and eventually making the collection available to researchers. Per the Post, the organization is also working with Kamoinge groups around the mid-Atlantic to explore opportunities for further collaboration, including a potential exhibition of works from the acquisition.
Those interested in learning more about the collective can visit “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop,” an exhibition now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and scheduled to travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art this summer.
“It’s a group whose time has come for recognition,” Brannan tells DCist, “and we’re very pleased about it.”