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Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA-04)

Identifier: VA-04

Scope and Contents

The collection's inclusive dates are 1945-2005, with the bulk of the material dating from the 1960s-1990s. The collection is comprised of correspondence, ephemera, publications, negatives, contact sheets, slides, prints, and photographic equipment.


  • 1945-2005


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research. Digitization of the collection has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The digital collection can be accessed through the VMFA Collections Search website.

A limited number of files are restricted. Access to restricted materials may require written permission of the donor and/or the VMFA Director.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is subject to all copyright laws. VMFA has been granted a non-exclusive license to reproduce the collection only for their educational and publicity purposes by the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust. Other digitized content is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.

Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by copyright, beyond that allowed by fair use, requires the researcher to obtain permission of copyright holders.

Biographical Note

Louis Hansel Draper

Born: September 24, 1935, Richmond, VA Died: February 18, 2002, Trenton, NJ

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.

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


37.5 Linear Feet (170 boxes; 6,605 items)

Language of Materials



The extensive collection documents the life and work of Richmond-born photographer and educator Louis Draper (1935–2002). Manuscript and photographic materials document Draper’s experience and work as an African American photographer, including his recognition of his photography as a form of “engaged resistance” that not only bore witness to leaders of the civil rights movement, but also offered a richer and more diverse perspective of African American life than provided by the mainstream media.

In 1963, he was a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of African American photographers, and the collection includes significant materials from the early years of the Kamoinge Workshop and document his perspective on the professional challenges that he and the collective confronted in the process of finding publications that would publish photographs of African Americans made by African Americans.

His photographs of significant 20th-century artists, writers, musicians, and performers reflect the wide array of personal connections that Draper made after moving to New York from Richmond, Virginia in 1957. Printed photographs and contact sheets in Draper’s archive show a broad view of city life and the everyday interactions between people and also offer a unique vision of African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s.


The collection is organized into eleven series. Arrangement within each series varies based upon the material. In general, the manuscript materials are arranged chronologically (where possible), and the photographic material is arranged thematically, often by geographic location. The only series that is arranged alphabetically is Series 3.1: Identified Subjects."

Series 1
Manuscripts, 1947-2005, undated
Series 2
Publications, 1959-2005, undated
Series 3
Photography: Portraits, 1958-2001, undated
Series 4
Photography: United States Locations, 1957-1999, undated
Series 5
Photography: International Locations, 1978-1990, undated
Series 6
Photography: Landscapes and Abstractions, 1960-2000, undated
Series 7
Portfolios, 1964, undated
Series 8
Photographic Equipment, 1945-1988, undated
Series 9
Audiovisual Materials, 1972-2000, undated
Series 10
Born Digital Files, 1996-2001, undated
Series 11
Photographs by Others, 1946-1998, undated

Custodial History

Louis Draper’s sister, Nell Draper-Winston, inherited his estate upon his death in 2002. The collection remained at Mercer Community College in Trenton, New Jersey while Gary Saretzky (Draper’s friend and colleague, as well as an Archivist for the Monmouth County Archives) organized it from 2002-2006.

Saretzky created a detailed finding aid for the photographs and archives before transferring them (on Draper-Winston’s behalf) to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. The collection arrived at the University of Virginia on December 26, 2006, and left in November 2012 to come to Candela Books and Photographs in Richmond, Virginia (email to Courtney Tkacz from Heather Riser, Head of Operations, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, July 1, 2019).

At that time, Candela represented the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust and housed the collection until it was acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in December 2015 as part of a gift-purchase of the archive and 35 photographs for the museum's art collection.

In February 2008, Don Lowing, a darkroom technician at Mercer County Community College located other materials including cameras, disks, and photographic materials (mainly negatives). These additional materials were inventoried by Saretzky and sent to the University of Virginia to be integrated into the rest of the collection (email to Courtney Tkacz from Gary Saretzky, June 28, 2019).

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Books

  • Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop, 2020
  • Growing up in Civil Rights Richmond: A Community Remembers, 2019
  • Louis H. Draper: Selected Photographs, 2015
  • Timeless, 2015
  • The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family, 2004

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Artist Files

  • Virginia Artist File: Louis Draper
  • International Artist File: Kamoinge

Processing Information

In 2017, the museum was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund 29 months of work that transformed this 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, 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 together.

Processing and description of the manuscript materials was performed by Courtney Yevich Tkacz from 2016-2017, and processing and description of the photographic material was performed by Margo Lentz-Meyer from 2017-2019. All materials were digitized in their original sleeves, then rehoused, but all sleeves with Draper's handwriting were retained.

Finding Aids to Special Collections in the VMFA Archives | Louis H. Draper Artist Archives
Virginia Artist Archives 04 (VA-04)
Courtney Yevich Tkacz, VMFA Archivist; Margo Lentz-Meyer, Archives Technician
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Archives Repository

Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library
200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard
Richmond VA 23220-4007 United States