Interview Adger Cowans’ archive
Adger Cowans is an artist of so many parts and such longevity that no brief description can do him justice.
“A fine-arts photographer and abstract expressionist painter” is how he introduces himself on his website, which he admits he hasn’t bothered to keep up to date.
“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t put everything up there. It would be too much.”
The long list of exhibits on the website begins in 1965 and stops in 2011. But that doesn’t mean Cowans, who turned 82 on Sept. 19, himself has stopped. His studio apartment in Bridgeport’s Read’s Artspace building erupts with creative chaos.
For a visitor, he reaches into a bag on the floor and grabs handfuls of plastic litter he has collected for a series of anti-pollution paintings. “This is part of my anger at the way people throw plastic away,” he says.
He doesn’t sound angry, though. He sounds enthused. The chair at his computer is a tangible metaphor for his energy. It is two-toned and high-backed, like a driver’s seat appropriated from a race car. Just in August he had exhibits in Sag Harbor and Atlanta. He also flew to Los Angeles for a session with a co-writer working on his memoirs.
Cowans, who is world-traveled, has a one-word answer for why he moved to Bridgeport in 2006: “Rent.” It went from $3,000 to $5,000 on his long-time studio in New York. Also, he wanted to stay close to a daughter who lives there and he liked the Artspace concept.
“I never lived in a building with other artists, I was kind of a lone ranger,” he says. Reflecting on his limited recognition outside the art world, Cowans guesses it is partly his own doing. “I tried to stay under the radar.”
Another factor may be that his commercial career, as a movie set photographer, immunized him to celebrity. A photograph of Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn from “On Golden Pond” is one of his best-known images. He remembers bonding with Zero Mostel over their mutual interest in painting and admiration for Matisse.
“They were people. It was a job I was doing. Maybe in the beginning there was a little bit of ‘Wow, there’s so and so.’ But after a while that thing about adulation wears out. Just because thousands of people look at you doesn’t make you any better than anybody else. ... Some stars I worked with, they believed their own p.r.”
One listing he omits from his website is the some three dozen movie productions he shot. Anyone can look them up on the International Movie Database. He almost forgets to mention that in 1969 he became the first African-American inducted into the cinematographers union. He says he himself didn’t learn of the distinction until years later.
His commercial work gave him time and money to travel and pursue his own art. His abstract photos of water surfaces were the first to attract critical notice, he says. Some photos taken at Bridgeport’s Seaside Park get full-page display in “Personal Vision,” a monograph devoted to his black-and-white work. Published 2016, it gave Cowans the recognition that reviewers said was long overdue.
Cowans grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a family that he says was “poor with middle-class ideas.” His father worked as a private butler. His homemaker mother played the piano and involved the children in a local theater group. He took art classes and also belonged to the Boy Scouts, becoming a Sea Scout. “I had a typical American upbringing,” he says.
Like other families, his recorded their lives in snapshots. However it happened, he knew he wanted to be a photographer from the time he enrolled in Ohio University.
“When I went and told my parents, my father had a fit,” he remembers. “He said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Kodak makes a camera that takes pictures and then they send you the pictures back. What’s the big deal?’”
His mother won his father over and an uncle suggested he look for another black photographer. “I didn’t know anybody. All my teachers were white,” he says.
Eventually, Cowans found an early mentor in Gordon Parks, the photographer and movie director. Parks once wrote of Cowans: “His photographs go as far as imagery can go without actually speaking. Cowans has acquired the freedom to master himself.”
Joel Lang is a freelance writer..