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About Louis H. Draper and the Draper Archive Project

Louis Hansel Draper

Born: September 24, 1935, Richmond, VA

Died: February 18, 2002, Trenton, NJ

The biography below, written by Sharayah Cochran, has been reproduced from the catalog “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop.”

Photo credit: “East Village,” 1970s. ©Beuford Smith. Gift of the Beuford Smith Collection, VMFA Archives.

While a student at Virginia State College (now University) Lou Draper wrote to his father, Hansel, with the news that he had joined the school newspaper. His father—an amateur photographer in Richmond’s East End—gave Draper his first camera. After joining the college camera club, he dropped a bottle of acid while trying to develop his film. As a result of trying to mop it up, he was hospitalized and subsequently kicked out of the club. Despite this initial setback, Draper resolved to be a photographer after seeing the exhibition catalogue for The Family of Man (1955). Realizing that the work he admired was made by photographers in New York, Draper left Virginia State during his final semester and, with the support of his family, moved to New York City.

Throughout the late 1950s Draper worked as a medical clerk while studying at the New York Institute of Photography. He dropped out realizing he could learn the same information through magazines like Modern Photography. In 1958 Draper enrolled in a photography workshop led by Harold Feinstein, where he met professional photographers like David Vestal and Herb Randall. Draper also worked as an assistant to studio photographers Larence Shustak and John Rawlings.

In 1959 Draper exhibited two works in the Photography at Mid-Century exhibition curated by Beaumont Newhall at the George Eastman House (now Museum). He also exhibited his work in Greenwich Village galleries, including the Image Gallery run by Larry Siegel.

Draper enrolled in workshops at the New School for Social Research, including W. Eugene Smith’s course “Photography Made Difficult: Photojournalism, the Construction of Picture Stories and Picture Essays” and began working with the prolific magazine photographer around 1960. In addition to assisting in the darkroom, Draper was a teaching aide for “Photography Made More Difficult” hosted at Smith’s Flower-District loft.

In 1963 Draper turned his attention to the Kamoinge Workshop and quickly emerged as one of the group’s teachers. Draper contributed to major workshop projects in the early to mid-1960s beginning with Portfolio No. 1 through the “Harlem” photo-essay in the July 1966 issue of Camera magazine, which featured his photograph John Henry on the cover. Portfolio No. 2 and the photoessay included Draper’s poem “Colonial Legacy.”

In the late 1960s Draper taught photography courses while taking classes in film production. Between 1966 and 1968 Draper worked with Randall, Ray Francis, and Jimmie Mannas at the Youth in Action program in Bedford-Stuyvesant, teaching photography to teenagers and young adults. He also participated in the Channel 13 Black Journal Workshop where he concentrated on learning motion picture production. In 1968 he enrolled in the graduate program at the New York University Institute of Film and Television along with future Kamoinge member Danny Dawson. Draper gained professional film experience by working for Mannas’s Jymie Productions and assisted Mannas with two short documentaries, Head and Heart and The Folks. He was also a cameraman for commercial and independent projects led by NYU professors like cinematographer Bedrich (Beda) Batka and worked on a number of productions as a still photographer. In 1982 he was a script supervisor and photographer for the feature-length film Losing Ground.

In 1967 he began teaching a class in photographic techniques at Central Brooklyn Neighborhood College, which was supported by the Pratt Institute Center for Community Improvement. He left the program in 1969 but returned to Pratt in 1974 to teach a college-level photography course for design students. Draper joined the staff of the Multi-Media Project at Intermediate School 201 in the Bronx in 1971 where Herb Randall, Calvin Wilson, and Ray Francis also served as photographers and teachers. He also worked with the Photography for Rehabilitation program at the New York State Division for Youth in 1974.

In 1971 the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Edward Spriggs, called a meeting of photographers to address how they could use photography to support the neighborhood. Draper and Beuford Smith were among the founding members of a group named the Collective Black Photographers. During Draper’s tenure as chairman of the group they organized a fundraisers and community photography projects. Draper also served on the Studio Museum’s Photography Committee.

Essence sent Draper to Ruleville, Mississippi, to photograph civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative. These photographs were part of the feature story “Fannie Lou Hamer Speaks Out” in the magazine’s October 1971 issue. The next month, Essence published Draper’s portraits of the some of the mothers of the “Harlem Six,” a group of young Black men who were wrongly accused of murder in New York City in 1964.

In 1973 Draper won a Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS) program grant “to create a set of film-strips about Ruleville, Mississippi . . . for use in New York City public schools and for public presentation.” CAPS award panels included leading photographers such as Harry Callahan, and not only provided funding for artists but also enriched the creative community. In 1976 the CAPS publication Exposure: Work by Ten Photographers included work by Draper and Anthony Barboza. From 1974 to 1975 Draper served as coordinator of photography for the CAPS program and was an award panelist in 1982.

Interspersed with his teaching assignments, Draper explored other artistic media and forms. In addition to taking screenwriting classes at NYU, he attended workshops at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in 1982, studying screenwriting with Fred Hudson and Elihu Weiner and videotape production with Vernard Gantt. Building on his experiences with W. Eugene Smith, Draper studied page design at the C. Richard Read Studio. On occasion, he worked as a studio assistant to Herb Robinson and Barboza. He was also a cofounder of Northlight Studios, which operated from 1975 to 1985.

From 1978 to 1982 Draper taught and coordinated photography courses for schools in New Jersey, through the Creative Resources Institute. Afterward, he began teaching photography for Mercer County Community College in Trenton. Draper finally received his bachelor of arts degree from Thomas A. Edison State College in 1987. He participated in organizations like the Trenton Artists Workshop Association (TAWA) and was an artist in residence at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, where he printed his series New Jersey Artists, which included portraits of painters Hughie Lee-Smith and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, among others.

Draper taught at Mercer until his death in 2002.

Draper Archive Project

The Draper Archive Project is the culmination of more than three years of work to catalog, digitize, preserve, and disseminate the extensive Draper archive.

In 2015, VMFA acquired Draper’s complete archive from his sister, Nell Draper-Winston. The archive consists of more than 6,600 items (representing more than 50,000 images), including photographs, negatives, contact sheets, slides, computer disks, audiovisual materials, and camera equipment, as well as valuable documents and publications, which include significant materials about the formation and early years of the Kamoinge Workshop. The archive inspired and informed the exhibition and catalog Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop

Two years later, in 2017, the museum was awarded a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund 29 months of work that transformed an extremely large, physical archive into a rich digital resource. An interdepartmental grant team was assembled from across the museum, including staff members of the Library/Archives, Imaging Resources, Curatorial, and Conservation departments.

While the physical archive had been well organized previously by a colleague and friend of Draper’s, the digitization process allowed the team to rethink the intellectual arrangement and determine an ideal numbering scheme for a photography archive. The result was a system designed around the organizing principle of the photoshoot itself, and now all related contact sheets, prints, slides, and negatives are described and presented together online.

In total, the following amount data was created for the various types of materials:

  • 178,308 total fields of metadata
  • 14,732 images created
  • 6,603 data records created
  • 2,038 negative strips and contact sheets
  • 1,822 slides
  • 1,506 prints
  • 1,164 manuscripts and publications
  • 72 pieces of camera equipment
  • 1 set of keys to a 1969 Chevy

The detailed cataloging work allowed the team to make deep connections with the Draper photographs that were already in the museum’s collection, by adding critical details to the knowledge about them. For example, the names of the young men Draper photographed when he was a mentor for the Youth in Action program were uncovered through his handwritten notes on negative sleeves and contact sheets.

Extensive data normalization ensured that users would find all of the relevant materials about a particular person or event, while maintaining Draper’s own language and terminology.

Data was also used to build relationships with the museum’s art collection. Metadata was added to records to automatically link related archival materials to photographs, so that users will be presented with the option to explore directly related negatives, contact sheets, correspondence, or other ephemera.