This Week In Photography Books: Adger Cowans

by Jonathan Blaustein

Over the last six years, I’ve become addicted to Arsenal Football Club, a soccer team that plays in London. It’s gotten so serious that I even write about the team, for fun, at 7am kickoff, a popular American-run Arsenal blog.

It all started out innocently enough.

After I sold a chunk of photographs, when “The Value of a Dollar,” took off, I was able to buy a nice television, and hook it up to Dish Network. Straight away, they piped in all this international soccer, (for free at first,) and once I was hooked, they yanked it away.

I’ve had to pony up a lot of scratch to maintain the habit ever since.

While I could have ultimately supported a handful of teams, when I first started watching, (and might be happier had I chosen otherwise,) I was successfully charmed by Arsenal’s famed mega-manager, Arsene Wenger.

He’s hard to encapsulate quickly, partly because he’s so multi-talented. He grew up in Alsace, and therefore speaks French and German, in addition to English, Spanish, Italian and a bit of Japanese. He was trained as an economist, is known as a progressive globalist, and brought a certain Continental, Gallic, professorial cool to the thug-life English league in the late 90’s.

He went on to massive glory with “The Invincibles,” his undefeated 2003-4 team, which was immortalized in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”. Then Wenger, who had previously managed in Monaco and Japan, designed a new stadium for Arsenal, and kept them in the black through years when the club was heavily debt-strapped.

Basically, I became an Arsenal fan, in large part, because Arsene Wenger was “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Now, though, his temperament is too tetchy. He knows his time is coming to a close, but is battling with every ounce to hold onto his perch.

The short version is that Arsene Wenger is a legend, albeit one whom most fans and pundits feel has hit the retirement zone. He’s good enough to be good, but no longer good enough to be great.

I don’t think he deserves the “MIMITW” title anymore.

Therefore, we need a new “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Thankfully, I have a proposal for the perfect replacement. You might not have heard of him before, as I hadn’t, but this dude has been involved in SO many interesting things in the 20th, and now 21st Centuries.

His name is Adger Cowans, and I just finished looking at his new book, “Personal Visions: Photographs,” recently published by Glitterati. Take heed, as Mr. Cowans seems like a genuine candidate for the title, if this book is to be believed.

Adger Cowans grew up in a creative family in Ohio in the 1930’s and 40’s, and was surrounded by art and photography from a young age. There’s context provided for his hyper-productive career, which is then backed up by various statements referring to his massive charisma. Tuliza Fleming, a curator at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, specifically mentioned she’d noticed the power of his personal “cool.”

Better yet, in an afterward, Dowoti Desir, a writer described by the New York Times as a voodoo scholar and practitioner, writes things about him that can only be described as mystical.

One example: “His sacred counterparts are nested among the forces of the Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions such as the Marassa, the twins of the Haitian Vodou system.”

Another: “Cowans is the silent warrior on our path, the mayuba or the chameleon whose most powerful attribute is its ability to emulate or recreate the environment around them in every meticulous detail, while remaining true to its core.”

I bet he has your vote for “Most Interesting Man in the World” already, and we haven’t even talked about the pictures yet.

The book opens with essays and a personal narrative, including photographs of his family. (This book is built around his life, as well as his work.) There’s actually a picture at the very beginning, of his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather that is so creepy I almost don’t want to photograph it later. (But I will.)

After a stint in the Navy, Adger Cowans went to New York to apprentice with Gordon Parks, have a stint as a street photographer, shoot countless musical celebrities, and work as the set photographer for more than 20 movies in the 70’s and 80’s, including seminal films like “On Golden Pond,” “School Daze” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Adger Cowans has photographed Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, Henry Fonda, Jesse Jackson, Samuel Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Biggie Smalls, Al Pacino, and so many, many more.

The book doesn’t seem to be tied to any current exhibition, so it’s more likely a career-encapsulator, as I think Mr. Cowans is “approximately” 80. I’m not exactly sure of his age, as the book’s only weak spot is that it doesn’t provide dates for any of the photographs.

There are multiple sections, and each opens with a quote from an established photography master. (Erwitt, Sander, Weston et al.) The first, featuring street photos from the late 50’s and early 60’s was my favorite, as the best evoke a romanticized version of New York, even though they’ve got uptown street cred. (The snow-covered car and umbrellas-in-the-snow couplet was particularly magical.)

Apparently, Mr. Cowans also paints, makes music, and works with fiber, bolstering his Renaissance Man stature. The book riffs on that distinction, showing different phases of his photography discretely, including digital concoctions, still lives, and experimental imagery.

Not all of the photographs are classics, it should be said, but many of them are really excellent. In particular, I loved the early portrait of Barbara, whom I believe is the mother of his son Eden.

It is oddly intimate to have that family-album-element, but it definitely hooked me into this book. By digging in, I learned about elements of the African-American art community of which I was wholly ignorant. (He was a part of two important art collectives, Kamoinge and AFRIcobra.)

My experience writing about this book was unique, as it strangely enticed me to spend more time than I’d originally planned. First, I looked at it, thought it was cool, and then sat down to write, as I always do. I tried and tried, and then gave up after 6 attempts.

That’s never happened before.
Ever.

Instead, I sat down by the fire, and read it cover to cover, then skimmed back over several parts again. I looked at the images few more times as well, to better understand his career arc.

For whatever reason, this book required more of me than a flip-through and a witty response. I’m not surprised though, now that I know Adger Cowans might just be the Most Interesting Man… you get the point.

Bottom Line: A Funky, fascinating lifetime of work by an African American photographic badass

To Purchase “Personal Visions: Photographs” Go Here: http://glitteratiincorporated.com/products/personal-vision-by-adger-cowans

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Back when I was about 19 – that’s way back when…, I was in the Navy and worked with Adger at a photo lab at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. I looked up to him for photo knowledge, experience and ways of seeing things. He was a few years older than me. That was for a one year period. Never saw or talked with him after – well, maybe once or twice. About 53 years later, I’m 77 now, I looked him up again to talk with a friend and about photography and an eBook I was working on. I had my own film production company for many years. Was away from photo. But, I was playing with digital photography and wanted to discuss this with someone and used that as an excuse to contact him. I did miss talking with him. He still is who he was then and I admire the dedication and quality of his work. I’m off in another direction and can’t begin to compare myself… I jumped off onto my own ledge. I just did a photo eBook, if I can call it that. “Shut Your Mouth! Smell This!…” is a photo-art book on the Philadelphia Italian Market. It ain’t no Adger Cowans. But he helped. What a great path he still has…

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