The Louis Draper retrospective at Candela Books + Gallery is a quiet and persistent telling of another side to mid-20th century life in the United States that stands in stark contrast to the clean-cut and oversimplified suburban lifestyle that is often depicted to represent this era. Draper’s sensitive and probing portraits provide a distinctive view into the the reality of African American culture and people living in a parallel universe to nuclear standoffs and clean-shaven “Mad Men” advertising executives shaping a culture of brand consumption.
John Edwin Mason has already written a detailed account and review of Louis Draper’s life and work at the NY Time Lens Blog, so this review is is a more narrow analysis of Draper’s use of design, composition and light to express the dignity of his subject and a nuanced view of the life and times of the 1950’s and 60’s in the U.S.
Draper’s portraits are all tightly framed, but some present the person, whether child or adult, as a counterpoint to a complex abstraction of graffiti textured walls and doorways.
In “Boy with lace curtain” and “Boy with paint splatter” Draper builds the frame around a dynamic arrangement of fragmented architectural forms and gritty textures that set the context for the portrait of the child. While occupying a very small portion of the frame, the child’s face and expression, whether resolute or disarming, dominate the image composition; Draper creates a conversation between foreground and background, the present and the past, a life and it’s conditional existence. In both cases the young boys break out of the visual pattern yet are intricately woven into the fabric of the composition and visual dynamic of their environment. This a recurring theme and compositional approach that Draper seems to apply even to the point of leaving the human presence indicated by just a faint shadow of a figure.
In other portraits, Draper conveys the silent dignity and fortitude of his subject with dramatic, yet soft, shadows with his subject framed in front of a simple and plain wall. In “Young man in beret” a straightforward expression is split by the face half in silhouette. Stability and the strength of character is conveyed by the width of the body filling the bottom portion of the frame and the nearly symmetrical arrangement of the elements of the composition.
The exhibit presents a series of these profound and striking portraits through which a viewer feels like they are getting an intimate glimpse into the soul and reality of these individuals in their time and place.
“Mississippi Sharecroppers” is an incredibly dynamic composition that is conceptually shocking, yet elegant in presence. It is shocking to see the date of the image combined with the depiction of manual labor that seems more appropriate to an earlier century – an extended family, including a child, toil away hoeing a seemingly infinite stretch of crops. Draper establishes the basic structure of the composition with the symmetrical rows of crops reaching into the horizon line established around 3/5ths of the frame high; a plain sky simplifies the tonal contrasts. The workers, all in light clothing, contrast with the geometrical lines of the rows and the organic shapes and textures of the plants.
Pay attention to the way your eye tracks through this image to get a sense of the sophistication of Draper’s use of space and frame. The strong and detailed foreground draws in our eye first and then the rows pull your attention to the far couple, smallest in the frame, but the gestures of the two men on the left side of the group pull our eyes back and finally over to the young man whose gaze redirects our focus to the woman in the foreground….and then our attention is pulled back through again.
Each figure is a strong vertical column rising out of the diagonal movement of the rows of crops – these are forceful representations of stability and endurance in the face of hardship. Despite the conditions documented, the content and design of this image reminds of the enduring human spirit and our connection to the land. The image is the definition of Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” as it captures a perfect slice of time when each aspect of the photograph works seamlessly together to convey the meaning of that moment and place.
The images in this post are but a facsimile of the original gelatin silver prints on display at Candela Books + Gallery – it is well worth the visit to see the originals! As usual Candela Gallery has curated a significant exhibit of exceptional quality.
Louis Draper’s sister, Nell Draper-Winston partnered with Candela Books + Gallery for “Louis Draper: Retrospective,” Jan. 10 to Feb. 22. The first-of-its-kind exhibition is part of “Race, Place and Identity,” a series of Richmond events highlighting civil rights and social justice