Cowans, Adger W. 1936–
Adger W. Cowans 1936–
Since the mid-1960s, Adger W. Cowans has established a successful career as a still photographer for the Hollywood film industry, with credits ranging from Nothing But a Man (1964) to City Hall (1996). While Cowans’ film photographs are doubtless his most widely-seen work, his artistic practice also encompasses fashion, travel, landscape, and still-life photography; portraits; and even paintings. One of Cowans’ most famous images is an often-reproduced portrait of Malcolm X.
Cowans’ artistic influences are just as diverse as his creative output. Among his most important influences, he lists Edward Weston, a fine-art photographer from the early twentieth-century, and Gordon Parks, Sr., a photographer for Life magazine. While his work may be extremely broad, Cowans brings a similar visible sensibility and perfectionism to each project; according to Vivien Raynor, writing in the New York Times, he “describes himself as practicing with his eyes as a musician does with his instrument.”
Adger W. Cowans was born on September 19, 1936, in Columbus, Ohio. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Ohio University in Athens, where he studied with Clarence H. White Jr., an influential photographer and founding member of the group Photo-Secession. According to Les Krantz, writing in the book American Photographers, “Cowans’ studies with Clarence H. White Jr. and Minor White were early influences on his approach to photography as an art form.”
After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1958, Cowans joined the U.S. Navy, working as a Navy photographer until 1960. The following year, he landed a job as an assistant to Gordon Parks at Life magazine. Later in his career, he would have the opportunity to work with fashion photographer Henri Clark, who would also influence Cowans’ work.
During the early 1960s, Cowans photographed many of the activities of civil rights groups, particularly the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). In 1962, he received a John Hay Whitney Foundation grant, a prestigious award that allowed him to pursue his own creative work. In 1963, he won the award for best photography at the Yolo International Exhibition in California. That same year, he launched his career as a freelance photographer.
During this time, Cowans was associated with the Boston group The Heliographers—“heliography” being an early term for “photography”—which included such notable photographers as Paul Caponigro and Jerry Ullsman. In 1965, Cowans had his first major exhibition at the Heliography Gallery, one of the first galleries in New York to consider photography to be “fine art,” on a level with more traditional art forms such as painting or sculpture.
Throughout the 1960s, Cowans’ work was shown in
At a Glance…
Born Adger W. Cowans, September 19, 1936, Columbus Ohio. Education: Ohio University, BFA, 1958.
Career: Photographer, US Navy, 1958-60; assistant to Cordon Parks, Life magazine, 1961-62; freelance photographer, 1963-; visiting photography instructor, Wayne State University, Cleveland Institute of Arts, University of Michigan; artist in residence, College of New Rochelle, New York, 1994.
Awards: John Hay Whitney Foundation grant, 1962; Best photography, Yolo International Exhibition in California, 1963.
Member: Former member. The Heliographers, African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA), Kam-oinge Workshop; founding member, International Black Photographers; current member, International Photographers Local 644.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY. Representative —Roz Allen, 142 W. 13th Street, New York, NY 10011.
exhibitions all around the world. In 1966, he exhibited his photographs at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. Two years later, he was included in the group shows “Photography in the Fine Arts” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and “Photography USA” at the Decordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
In addition to his association with the Heliographers, Cowans was one of the founding members of the organization International Black Photographers. He also belonged to the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA), a group which began in Chicago in the late 1960s, and the Kamoinge Workshop. He participated in several shows with members of these groups, including the Heliographers exhibition, shown at Lever House and George Eastman House; and the Kamoinge Workshop exhibition, which travelled to the International Center of Photography, the Chicago School of Design, Harvard University, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In the mid-1960s, Cowans began to achieve success as a still photographer for the motion picture industry. He now has more than 30 feature films to his credit, including Nothing But a Man (1964), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), The Way We Were (1973), On Golden Pond (1981), The Cotton Club (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), and City Hall (1996).
In 1977, Cowans exhibited photographs at The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. Four years later, his work was included in the exhibition “Moments” at Greenespace Gallery in New York.
In 1994, Cowans had a mini-retrospective exhibition at the College of New Rochelle in New York, where he was an artist-in-residence. The show included more than 30 photographs—including portraits, street scenes, landscapes, and still lifes—dating from the 1950s to the 1990s, as well as 18 of his paintings dating from the 1970stothe 1990s. “Mr. Cowans is at his best when the subject is nature,” wrote critic Vivien Raynor in the New York Times “Examples are a beautiful shot of bare trees receding, black to gray, through mist illuminated by a dim sun and the pictures of reflections in rippling water.”
As for his paintings, Raynor wrote, “Mr. Cowans is craftsman enough in his prints, but in his painting he becomes obsessive…. With these canvases, Mr. Cowans abandons the world for a realm where there is neither humanity nor weather—only cold perfectionism expressed by means of luxuriant color and texture.”
The following year, Cowans’ work was shown at the Emily Lowe Gallery in Long Island, New York. “Mr. Cowans has spent many years photographing water, frozen and fluid,” wrote critic Helen A. Harrison in the New York Times. “His pictures invite contemplation, for the nuances that emerge appear only gradually as the eye penetrates the welter of surface rhythms. Isolated from their surroundings, the images become suggestive, alluding to veiled forms that seem both tangible and ephemeral.”
Cowans’ photographs have been published by such well-known periodicals as Ebony, Esquire, Essence, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look, Modern Photography, the New York Times, Paris Match, and Time. Hisworkhas also been included in Popular Photography Annual in 1966 and 1968, as well as Black Photographer’s Annual in 1973, 1974, and 1976.
In addition to his freelance career, Cowans has taught photography classes at Wayne State University, the Cleveland Institute of Arts, and the University of Michigan. His work has been collected by IBM Corporation, Rochester, New York; IMP/GEH, also in Rochester; Shado Gallery, Oregon City, Oregon; and the State Office Building in Harlem, New York.
American Photographers, edited by Les Krantz, Facts on File, 1989.
Willis-Thomas, Deborah, Illustrated Bio-bibliography of Black Photographers, 1940-88, Garland Publishing, 1989.
New York Times, July 23, 1995, LI 12; March 13, 1994, WC 20.
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