There was a time when photography was damned hard work: checking light meters and adjusting camera apertures, twirling focus rings. Whether carefully planned or serendipitously snapped, the photographer could never be absolutely certain if the moment the shutter was squeezed was a good one, until after a lengthy darkroom session with pungent chemicals, negative strips, bulky enlargers, and various photo papers — everything bathed in the flat glow of red safety lights.
Shawn Walker was born into this era, in Harlem, in 1940, and by his early twenties had joined the Kamoinge Workshop, a then recently formed (and still active) collective of Black photographers who wanted to raise awareness of the Black experience in America and abroad through their imagery. Walker soon became adept at decisively combining compelling narratives with vibrant, abstractly buttressed compositions. Street Scene (1965) captures a young girl in a white dress framed between slightly blurred fence railings in the foreground and the side of a whitewashed truck studded with rivets and edged with rust in the background. The little girl stares out of the frame, and whatever she sees there balances her intense expression on an edge between apprehension and surprise.
In 117 St. (Lenox – 7th Ave), from 1962, a man rests on his walking stick, chin atop hand, and eyes the photographer — thereby staring right at (and through) us viewers. His companion twists in a slight blur to glance up the street, seeming to have bigger fish to fry. The bright contours of his jacket and the other’s short-sleeved shirt interweave with curved highlights racing along the dark fenders of both the parked sedan they’re leaning against and a truck across the street.
Another photo of the same name but shot a year later focuses on a man slumped in a chair. He’s in the street, near the curb, his knees abutting the big chrome bumper and jutting tail fins of a Detroit behemoth of that era; behind him, a more homely mode of transportation — a battered baby carriage with sideboards added to increase its hauling capacity — is crammed with clothes. A ratty doll sits atop an alarm clock, both incongruously perched on the carriage’s high side. Whether he’s taking a siesta or on the nod, the diagonal of the bumper flows through his body into the X-struts of his chair and along the angled handle of the carriage, compositional thrusts and parries commensurate with the uncertain poignancy of the human tale.
Walker journeyed metaphysically far in a single block. Another moment from 117th Street, this time shot in 1964, finds a young girl in a patterned jumper sucking on her fingers, her other hand grasping an iron fence rail. She’s joined on the stoop by a man careful to sit on a newspaper to protect the seat of his dark suit. He holds a cigarette, smoked short, a white stroke against his dark skin, perfectly balanced by the width of a bright ring on his other hand. Father and daughter? Neighbors? The possibilities are broad, allowing for open-ended narratives energized by pitch-perfect tonal contrasts and the assonant harmonies of the figures’ gestures. At a relatively early age, Walker realized that a camera’s viewfinder offers a real-time portal into lived experience and that the true artist needs to surpass the simple conveyance of information by maneuvering his own body — whether crouching, tippy-toeing, bending, leaning — into the perfect position to discover the angles, curves, shadows, highlights, crystalline or soft-focus details that supremely meld narrative with formal dynamism.
In these vintage prints — the infinitesimal grains of silver suspended in emulsion offering a visual heft very different from today’s pixels onscreen — one senses a communion between form and conveyance, that old-school feel of light having substance: the bathing warmth of the sun or the flattening glare of fluorescent fixtures. In Untitled, Cuba #5 (1968), a hand grasps a rifle that casts a shadow undulating like a snake over the heavy folds, pocket flaps, and thick belt of a military uniform. In 1970’s Untitled (From the Series Drugs), a man with a slack mouth leans slightly toward the camera, both mentally unfocused and literally out of focus, his companion behind him slouching on the lunch counter under monotonous indoor lighting. The first man wears a jacket checkered with fat squares that segue into the other man’s collar, a bright curl that leads to his pork pie hat, a compositional through line tethered to a sign advertising banana splits in the upper-right corner — a tableau of childish delight mixed with adulterated hope. (Walker’s trip to Castro’s Cuba to document the building of a new school prompted the FBI to list him as an internal threat, which also gets one thinking about how some of the junkies might have felt about Walker’s unvarnished portraits of their lifestyle.)
It’s still hard to take a really good photograph — never mind a truly great one — even today, in this smartphone age when snapping a photo takes as much time (and, too often, as little thought) as checking one’s watch did back in 1970. Walker, now in his early eighties, is still working; these prints from more than half a century ago are a testament to an artist who puts his eyes — indeed, his whole body — where his beliefs are. ❖
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