Book Review: Personal Vision: Photographs, Adger Cowans, 2017
By Vasken Kalayjian
American cultural identity was reshaped at a time of social unrest and political struggle in the 1960s. Growing up in Syria I looked up to black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and others who I revered as heroes. When I immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s and experienced the reality of how deep the racial division, injustice and violence directed towards blacks in America was, the turmoil in society became ever more apparent.
When I picked up this special book of photographs titled Personal Vision: Photographs by this wonderful artist and photographer Adger Cowans renown for photographing Harlem and Hollywood in the 1960s, I recalled the fresh, exhilarating scents, sights, and sounds of America that were so new to me as an impressionable young man suddenly transposed to a new culture with unfamiliar customs. Through his curious camera lens, he brilliantly recreated those same neighborhoods of New York City that so impressed me while exploring the city’s nooks and crannies as a student at Pratt. As I flipped the pages I was experiencing my impressions a new of the same inspiring churches and colorful storefronts, and the inspirational musicians, actors, artists and energetic protesters that I so admired, but in a vibrant, yet stunningly realistic way.
Cowans at the same time had a successful career shooting on Hollywood movie sets, and he captured the entertainment industry’s icons throughout his career, including Katharine Hepburn, Dionne Warwick, Spike Lee, Mick Jagger and many others. Many of these extraordinary images have been reproduced in this volume.
Although the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA have exhibited his professional work, this book features frames from his personal collection. The tome contains 40 years of photographs of American icons—Malcolm X at a rally on Fifth Avenue, Halle Berry and Al Pacino on set, and Gordon Parks.
The peruser of this volume will gain an inside view of what it meant to be a Black artist during the Civil Rights movement and at the birth of Black Power. It is a deeply spiritual experience to see his personal collection of photographs that have a multifaceted purpose to report, inform, and inspire, to go deep inside the person as an outer shell to his deeper essence. Yet on another level, Ager Cowans is able to transcend form and penetrate the physical matter to the inward, abstracted nature of his subjects. In some of the photos, Ager Cowan’s penetrating eye delves directly into the spirit world. And that is reason enough to add this volume to any art and photography enthusiast’s library.