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This article by Tricia Fagan was prepared for the May 15, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Lou Draper: Bringing a World Into Focus
Almost half a century ago — inspired by Edward
Steichen’s historic "Family of Man" exhibition —
Louis Draper set out to identify, name, and celebrate the human
as he found it. His camera, intelligence, and personal grace gained
him access to places, individuals, and events all over the world,
from Harlem to Moscow. Wherever he went he documented subtle, fleeting
moments of humanity in black and white photographs of great beauty.
When Lou Draper died this past February, he left behind hundreds of
those images. His friends and colleagues, determined to publish a
book of his life’s work, are hosting a gala art auction featuring
paintings, photographs, ceramics, and prints donated by some of the
region’s most sought-after visual artists, as well as goods and
from many area businesses and restaurants — and the public is
invited to attend. Proceeds from the event will go to produce a book
of Draper’s photography. Profits from the sale of the book will go
to a memorial scholarship in Draper’s name. Mel Leipzig, artist, MCCC
painting professor, and long-time friend says, "It’s imperative
that Lou’s work be preserved. He was an extraordinary photographer.
Among his many images are portraits of some of the most important
figures of our time, including Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis, and Miles Davis."
The benefit fundraiser — co-sponsored by MCCC and the Trenton
Artists Workshop Association (TAWA) — will be Sunday, May 19,
from 2 to 5 p.m., in the Student Center of Mercer County College,
West Windsor campus. The event will feature both a live and silent
auction, refreshments, and music by Jim Kelly’s band. Suggested
Louis Hansel Draper was born in 1935 in Richmond, Virginia, the first
of Hansel and Dorothy Draper’s two children. He and his sister Nell
grew up surrounded by family and an active church community. Draper
pursued classic childhood activities that included baseball,
Boy Scouts, Sunday school, and choir. His cousin recalled recently
that even as a young boy Lou demonstrated the even-handed, gentlemanly
demeanor that was to become his trademark.
Draper began taking photographs while attending Virginia State College
in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until he saw an early copy of "The
Family of Man" catalog that he recognized his calling. The
galvanized him. Determined suddenly to focus on photography, he
out of college. Equipped with his camera — a gift from his father
— he moved to New York City. There he sought out Harold Feinstein
and W. Eugene Smith and studied with each of them in private
His efforts soon attracted critical recognition. In 1959 Draper gained
national attention when his work, included in the historic
at Mid-Century" exhibition at the George Eastman House, was
out for praise by curator and historian Beaumont Newhall. The
year his photographs were shown by Larry Siegel at Image Gallery.
Early on, much of Draper’s work incorporated the new "snapshot
esthetic" then evolving among American photographers of the 1960s.
His photographs from this period — whether of New York City
or moments from the Civil Rights movement — combine the immediacy
and lack of artifice of a snapshot with the clear eye and skilled
framing of earlier documentary photographers. Erina Duganne from the
University of Texas at Austin argues that Draper’s relevance and
to the development of this unique documentary approach during this
pivotal time has yet to be fully acknowledged and appreciated.
Even at this early stage, many of Draper’s key interests as a
were clearly established. Although he made many beautiful still lifes
and nature studies, it is in works that seize the human gesture within
an environment that he shines. "He was able to catch that special
moment that captured the essence of the person he was
says Gary Saretzky, archivist and a colleague at Mercer. Jeffrey Hoone
from Light Work says, "Photography is a medium of access . . .
Photographers can be invited into the lives of strangers — and
sometimes they locate and describe the meaning of community and the
formation of character, like the photographs of Lou Draper."
In 1963, Draper joined several other New York-based
African-American photographers to found a ground-breaking collective,
the Kamoinge Workshop. The group, which continues to this day, met
regularly to discuss work, techniques, to arrange exhibitions, run
a gallery, and publish. Draper’s personal vision for his work is
reflected in Kamoinge’s stated mission to "produce significant
visual images of our time in the area of relationships, political,
and social interaction, and the spiritual world of pure imagery."
In 1967 Draper began teaching photography in New York City public
schools as an artist hired through an anti-poverty project. Years
later, he recalled it as one of the most inspiring jobs of his career.
He returned to college, completing his B.A. through Thomas Edison
College and receiving an M.F.A. from NYU’s Institute for Film and
In 1982, after several years as a freelance photographer (including
a stint as in-house photographer for Honeywell), Draper joined the
visual arts faculty at MCCC as professor and photography program
He was a popular teacher, although his legendary calm was sometimes
threatened by talented students who did not work to their potential.
Today many established photographers in the region and around the
world (at least one in Australia) cite Draper as a major influence
both in their development as photographers and in their decision to
pursue photography as a career. His support of former students was
generous and unwavering. Two years ago, when I offered a gallery show,
he asked me to look at the work of one of his former students instead.
When the student’s work was on display, Lou shamelessly promoted the
exhibit, beaming like a proud father at the opening reception.
Although he never married, Draper had a long-time relationship with
Dorothy Gloster, and was a loving and supportive godfather to her
son Brandon. Throughout his life he continued his involvement with
communities of artists. In addition to his work as part of the college
community, he was also an active member of TAWA — taking part
in the 1995 "Trenton Takes: 24 Hours in the City" project,
and representing the group in their artists exchange with Moscow.
Draper was also an artist-in-residence at Light Work, the non-profit
photo and imaging center in Syracuse, New York. One of his later,
personal projects was his New Jersey Artists series that included
portraits of artists Bernarda Bryson Shahn and Adolf Konrad in their
Lou Draper was a gifted, deeply human man, one whose innate compassion
resonated with the hidden lives of those he photographed, and one
whose artistic gift allowed him to capture and share some of the most
subtle moments he experienced. "For me, the experience of making
art is often a magical one, rich in the sensory pleasure of
Draper once said. "I will never be able to make graphically
most of what photography has caused me to experience . . .
in it has led me to worlds of interest which I believe would have
lain dormant otherwise."
If Draper’s devoted friends have their way, some day soon we can all
share these magical experiences through his published work.
— Tricia Fagan
Student Center, West Windsor, 609-586-4800, ext. 3353. $10 donation.
Sunday, May 19, 2 to 5 p.m.
County Community College.
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