In 1963, the Kamoinge Workshop produced their first portfolio of photographs taken by members who made up the group. The portfolio included a statement that read: “The Kamoinge Workshop represents fifteen black photographers whose creative objectives reflect a concern for truth about the world, about society and about themselves.” Accompanying that were the words of member Louis Draper, who elegantly wrote: “Hot breath steaming from black tenements, frustrated window panes reflecting the eyes of the sun, breathing musical songs of the living.”
A collective was born. The word Kamoinge is derived from the Gikuyu language of Kenya. Translated literally, it means “a group of people acting together.” This spirit of camaraderie and family suffused the development of the group, which included Roy DeCarava, Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, and Shawn Walker. Early meetings were held in DeCarava’s midtown Manhattan loft. The following year, they rented a gallery in Harlem on Strivers Row, where they held meetings and hosted exhibitions. When the gallery closed, they moved the meetings to other members’ homes in the city, keeping their bonds intact throughout the years.
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In 2004, founding member Anthony Barboza was selected President, and set out a course to create a photography book showcasing the group’s legacy. Together with fellow member Herb Robinson, Barboza has edited Timeless: The Photographs of Kamoinge (Schiffer). Featuring more than 280 photographs taken over fifty years, Timeless is an extraordinary collection of work that reminds us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Creating Timeless was a labor of love, one than took more than a decade to execute. Barboza was determined to see the book to publication, despite lack of interest from mainstream publishers. But Kamoinge was never one to follow the mainstream and confirm to commercial trends. Determined to operate according to their own rules, Kamoinge has maintained its integrity and its independence, earning a level of authenticity unmatched in photography.
Reflecting on the nature of art, Barboza observes, “You gain so much by creating. It replenishes your spirit and soul. It’s the gift you give to yourself. That’s why you do it. This book is a record of the group. They were more than photojournalists. There are photos that go beyond telling a story; they talk about the photographer. There is an autobiographical sense of feeling in one image that exemplifies that person as a photographer, and that is very rare. There’s a spiritual quality that goes beyond the photographer.”
This is what makes Timeless unlike any other collection that exists; the photographers who created this work understood their place and their purpose in the world. With cameras in their hands, they could both see and describe the nature of life, such as they experienced it, whether in New York, West Africa, or Guyana. The photograph could be of Miles Davis—or it could be Biggie Smalls. What remains the same is the knowledge of self and the way it empowers the artist to explore the world. As Barboza observes, “You have to do your own thing. It can’t be dictated to you by anyone else. You have to come into your own being and be yourself.”