Adger Cowans: Renaissance Man

During the famous Harlem Renaissance, a cadre of talented artists from writers to musicians, sculptors and painters emerged to show off the great talent that Black America possessed and had been hidden for decades. Among the great artists were the painters Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglass and Sculptor Richard Barth. These are the men that set the precedent for further artists such as Gordon Parks. It is from these men and women that Adger Cowans grew and perfected his talent as a photographer and painter.

This Renaissance Man’s first passion was for photography. He told me in an interview that it began with his mother who was an amateur photographer as well as his Uncle Wilbur. At an early age, he was also influenced by an excellent book by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, Sweet Flypaper of Life. It was a coordinated effort featuring DeCarava’s photography with Hughes’ poetry about ordinary people, doing ordinary things as they go about living their lives. Ohio University was one of the few schools that offered a degree in photography, and that was convenient for Adger since he lived in Columbus, Ohio. Naturally, he chose Ohio University as his school and began classes in the Fall of 1954. He admits that during his first two years he partied quite a bit, but always did quite well in his photography classes.

However, while home on vacation it was an encounter with several small children and balloons that convinced him to become more serious about his pursuit of photography as a profession. As he walked along Mr. Vernon Avenue, he noticed some young children staring at balloons. He bought the balloons, gave them to the children and took photographs of them. When he shared those photographs with people he knew, they had differing perceptions of what they saw in them. He listened closely to their comments because it provided him with an insight into their thinking. At that point photography became even more exciting to him, because he realized that he could move people without saying a word. “I affect their sentiments, their ideas and concepts about life and about art, and that is what pushed me over the edge to become a more serious photographer. I knew I could do works that touched people in some kind of way,” he told me.

As soon as he finished his four years at Ohio University, he made his way to New York, just as the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance had done. It was the place to be for young artists like Adger. There, his study of photography continued under the tutelage of Gordon Parks, who hired Adger to work on his projects for Life Magazine. The following year he had the opportunity to meet and talk with Roy DeCarava in New York. That added to his enthusiasm about his field. He was also influenced by Edward Weston, one of the most renowned photographers of the Twentieth Century, but he would not remain in New York for very long.

In 1958, he had the opportunity to work with an underground film maker in Brazil, who was getting into all kinds of trouble with the Brazilian government. Evidently the government did not approve of the work they were doing as critics of the government. But Adger did still photography for them, and that introduced him to a new venture into films. He remained in Brazil for a year and being there was an epiphany for him. He now expanded his horizon and began to write poetry, and he also began painting. He returned to New York with a new state of mind. He was not only a photographer, but also a painter, poet, and film maker. He knew that he could never again work for a magazine, because of the limits put on his creativity to expand as he saw fit. Among his favorite photographs are two that he had the pleasure to take of the late and great Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz.

Over the many years of this man’s career, he has accumulated some amazing accomplishments. He has worked as still photographer for many movies to include, Dirty Dancing, Boomerang, On Golden Pond, Claudine, Sea of Love and over a dozen others. Adger is a proud member of the Kamoinge workshop defined as “a group working together.” He joined as one of the early members in 1963 and is still active in the group. As a group of Black photographers, their intent is to cultivate a supportive and yet critical artistic community that captures black life in all the member photographer’s vast experience. Their work presents to the Black community its dignity and positivity, which is antithetical to the stereotypical portrayal of their race by the media. Adger was recently featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in a show titled Lou Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop. One of the photos featured in that show is simply titled “Footsteps.” That show is on its way to the Getty Museum. Adger’s works are presently on display at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City.

As a writer, I am always curious as to what makes other artists in different genres tick. I asked that question of Adger and without hesitation he said, “The photographer, painter and sculptor deal with those moments that have to do with the spirit. For me art is spiritual, because it comes from the spirit that moves you to do something, not because of what you think but what you feel.  I take pictures with my heart and not with my eyes. What I want to pass on as my legacy is the idea that spirit moves everything, and people do things because of how they feel and not because of what they see.  If I must come back through reincarnation, I always want it to be as an artist. There is nothing else I want to be and there is nothing else I am interested in being, because it is the most creative thing that you can do.”

Adger Cowans as a young man left his home in Columbus, Ohio and became one of the finest photographers and expressionist painters in this country. His talents are best described by the late great Gordon Parks in the following words:

“Not only is Adger Cowans one of America’s finest photographers, but he is also one of its finest painters. Through film and paint his keen sensitive eye hauntingly reveals things, places and moments that make up bonfires of our lives; those shadows we live and swim in as we grind out the drama of everyday existence…His individualism sets him apart-simply because he follows his convictions. His photography and paintings are possessed with certainties and reasons, and one has a thirst to see more. Mr. Cowans has acquired the freedom to master himself. And obviously he became free from the moment he chose to be.”

Adger Cowans who has become one of my closest friends and associates is an artist that I respect because of his love for his craft. Years ago, he decided not to sacrifice what he felt should be preserved through the magic of photography, and that is a dedication that we all should strive toward. He has given that to all artists, to include me, and that is something that affirms  his legacy for generations to come.