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Arts & Culture

New exhibit shows photographer Adger Cowans range — from Civil Rights to movie stars

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An exhibit on display now in Connecticut showcases the work of Adger Cowans, a Black photographer and painter whose subjects range from civil rights marches to Hollywood movie sets. Connecticut Public Radio's Ryan Caron King brings us to Cowans' studio, where the artist reflects on his life's work.

RYAN CARON KING, BYLINE: Adger Cowans shuffles through a stack of prints. Sketches, collages and paintings cover almost every surface in his studio.

ADGER COWANS: Let me see. What else?

CARON KING: There's a photo of Sarah Vaughan performing at the Newport Jazz Fest and a picture of Mick Jagger relaxing in a hammock. Cowans pulls out a photo of a small girl silhouetted against the piercing beams of the sun. She looks like she's falling towards the ground.

COWANS: This is Icarus. They were throwing a little girl up with a blanket on the beach, and I'd just gotten a 21-millimeter lens. And I got real close to the edge of the blanket. And I shot this picture. And it reminded me of Icarus.

CARON KING: That's after the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun. Cowans, who's 85, was one of the first Black students to earn a degree in photography from Ohio University in the late 1950s. He says, growing up, he often listened to what the older men around him were talking about.

COWANS: I was a news carrier. I was a paper boy. So I was reading the papers while I was carrying them. So I was pretty up on what was going on in the world. And the things that, you know, upset me was about racism - it still upsets me - about Black people getting hung and killed and shot at. It got me. It gets me today.

CARON KING: Cowans says he faced a lot of racism working in a predominantly white industry. He got his big break when celebrated photojournalist Gordon Parks, who was the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine, hired Cowans as his assistant.

COWANS: So I took all that racism and rejection and everything, and I put it in my work, as one of the big things I learned from Gordon Parks was to take negative energy and turn it into positive power.

CARON KING: Cowans was also the first Black still photographer in Hollywood, working with directors like Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola. He didn't let the movie stars faze him. He wanted to get to know the people he photographed.

COWANS: I wanted those moments of life flowing past me, whether it was movie stars, whether it was people walking down the street, whether it was an abstract. No matter what it was, if I had a feeling here in my heart, then it was important to me to do it.

CARON KING: Halima Taha is the curator for Cowans's new exhibition at the Fairfield University Art Museum in Connecticut. She says she poured through hundreds of his images to select the right ones with him for the gallery - some pictures that have been published before and many that hadn't.

HALIMA TAHA: One of the things that happens to many artists and particularly artists of African descent is that the same images keep being reproduced or exhibited because people are familiar with them.

CARON KING: Taha says Cowans got a lot of support from his family and community, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and it gave him the conviction and confidence to handle the prejudice he faced later.

TAHA: I think that because he came out of that kind of environment, he was able to focus on developing himself as a human being, as a visual artist and in particular as a photographer.

CARON KING: Back in his studio, Cowans is painting. That's what he spends most of his time doing now, and he's not thinking of stopping anytime soon. He says he didn't put out a book of his photography until he was 80.

COWANS: People say, well, what do you want your legacy to be? I don't know anything about legacy. You know, it'll be what it is. It'll be what the people make it. I can't make my legacy. I don't even know what that is. All I want to do is the work, and it'll be whatever it will be.

CARON KING: For NPR News, I'm Ryan Caron King. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.