When he was growing up, everyone in Adger Cowans’ family had a Kodak box camera, and yet all he wanted to do was play music. Then one day he saw some children beguiling a street vendor to buy their balloons, and he took their picture.
“When I saw those images I understood the power of a photograph,” he said. “The photos were not about being poor. They were about happiness. The smiles on those faces made me understand how a photo could move people to see, think, and feel.”
After receiving his BFA in photography from Ohio University, Cowans studied at the School of Motion Picture Arts and School of Visual Arts in New York. After service as a Navy photographer, he moved to New York and apprenticed himself to the Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks and fashion photographer Henri Clark.
In the long career that followed, Cowans became among the most feeling and thoughtful documentary photographers of the African-American experience, as well as a fine-parts photographer and abstract expressionist painter whose highly prized work has found its way into some of the world’s most important institutions and collections.
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). He also became a very successful still photographer for the motion-picture industry, with more than 30 feature films to his credit. In both roles, he pursued a singular vision for photography.
After their early work together, Gordon Parks became one of Cowans’ most ardent admirers. “Often such talent abides by rules set by others, but Adger’s individualism sets him apart,” Parks once wrote. “His photographs go far as imagery can go without actually speaking.”
For Tuliza Fleming, curator of photography at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, the essential virtue of Cowans’ work is in “his incredible sensitivity to the soul of his subjects, his ability to stay in the moment, and capture that moment in his images; and, his uncanny ability to simultaneously reveal the seen and the unseen.”
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