Adger W.Cowans

Adger Cowans (b. 1936) was one of the first African American students to earn a degree in Photography from Ohio University in 1958, and furthered his education at the School of Motion Picture Arts and School of Visual Arts in New York City. Following graduation, Cowans obtained a position assisting photographer Gordon Parks at LIFE Magazine. Cowans later served in the United States Navy in Virginia Beach, VA and continued to work as a photographer. Cowans also has a storied career in cinema as a film still photographer on over thirty Hollywood sets, and worked with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Spike Lee.

For Cowans, the paramount elements of photography, and art at large, are heart and feeling. Cowans describes the act of photographing as such: “When I take a picture, I feel it. When you get that rush of feeling inside of you of ‘I have it. I felt it’.” Communication of spirit and emotion are essential to Cowans’s practice, and a close second is the ability to capture light and shadow. Two exemplary images of this exploration are Icarus, 1970 and Three Shadows, 1968. Icarus depicts the blazing sun, and small human figure at the bottom of the frame, perhaps falling with melting wings of wax. Three Shadows shows three young girls walking down a sidewalk in the Bronx with their long shadows stretched out in front of them. The ritual act of taking a photograph as a kind of spiritual practice is also important to Cowans, and when that is combined with the technical aspect of understanding of the qualities of light, that sacred space is where pictures become art.
In 1979, Cowans became a member of the highly influential African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), which was founded in Chicago in 1968 to define a “Black aesthetic”, and use identity and style as tools to promote solidarity among the African diaspora. Cowans’s work stood out due his interest in abstraction, as opposed to the more figurative work by other members. He still is a member today.


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