“I think all artists should read and travel,” Adger Cowans writes in his deeply engrossing memoir. And he more than practices what he preaches, taking readers on what continues to be a most adventurous, breathtaking life, full to the brim.
Known primarily as a photographer, he unspools a cornucopia of exciting moments, harrowing incidents, and significant personalities. Like his imaginative camera work, Cowans is just as inventive as a storyteller, and the episodes he recounts are almost visual, cinematic.
A vivid example of his ability to capture a poignant moment occurs in his chapter upon arriving in Tangier, a picturesque city in Morocco. “Morocco’s magic is timeless and potent,” he begins. “I felt the presence of ancient peoples from the moment I stepped off the ferry—men riding on horseback, people selling leather bags and herbs. The smell of mint tea and livestock permeated the air. Men were gesturing and crying their wares, “Aji, Aji! Come here. You want hashish?”
There are many such beckonings and temptations that Cowans readily succumbs to, and a few of his own creation. But let us return to the opening quote. “When you get stuck in rut, open a book, listen to music, go to a museum or explore something new, it doesn’t matter where.”
And explore Cowans does from one end of the globe to the other with mesmerizing stints in Brazil, Suriname, France, and across the U.S., none more intoxicating than his ventures in California and New York City.
Many of these opportunities to travel came at the request of filmmakers who employed him to provide stills for their productions. In this capacity, Cowans works with such notable directors as Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes, Bill Duke, Sidney Lumet, and Alan Pakula, to mention but a few of them.
These shoots also allowed him to hobnob with a coterie of movie stars, and the luminaries included Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Anthony Quinn, Wesley Snipes, Avery Brooks, and Danny Glover.
Each of these encounters becomes more than chance meetings and Cowans takes full advantage of them in learning the lessons of films and how to navigate the tricky world of entertainers and their often-inflated egos. Almost without exception, no matter where he travels, Cowans’ idyllic journey is interrupted with danger and pain. During his stay among the Djuka people in Suriname he contracts malaria; during a motorcycle trip from the West Coast to New York City, he is nearly killed when a car runs him off the road; and there are bouts of dysentery, and, even an out-of-body experience.
Most heartbreaking is when Cowans relates how his cameras were stolen. This happened on several occasions. There were at least three assignments where plans to work with a film crew ends in disappointment after the all the equipment is stolen, none more disturbing than when all of the crew’s equipment suddenly disappears during their trip to Saint Paul de Vence near Nice, France to film a concert date featuring the great Sun Ra and his Arkestra.
And it would be remiss not to mention his own musicianship, especially on trumpet, guitar and flute.
The setbacks weave in and out of more enjoyable engagements, particularly Cowans’ romantic evenings with an assortment of lovers. After a while, given the book’s structure, you are not sure of the sequence of affairs and when they actually happened.
Clearly, it’s a minor distraction since the stories he tells are so compelling, so absorbing that it makes little difference when they happened—your attention is riveted. Part of Cowans’ allure may be the extent to which he keeps to his credo—“Art is emotional, not visual.” Anyone who has seen his works, his photos or paintings, will attest to feelings that emanate from them, especially his impressions of water that are pervasive in his portfolios
Given his perambulations, the countless number of associations and political proclivities, it’s not surprising that he became affiliated with such black artists’ organizations as AfriCOBRA and the photographers of Kamoinge. From his first Leica camera to the momentary tenure at Ohio University, to spending valuable time with Gordon Parks, Cowans has marked a most productive and accomplished path in a little more than 80 years that began in Columbus, Ohio to Connecticut, where he currently lives.
At the close of his book, he writes, “Last night I was thinking about my childhood again. I know it was the love and the care I received from my mother and my father that gave me the courage to do what I’ve done. I always felt I was two people: the outside one everyone sees, the physical me, and another something inside of me, an inner guide. It isn’t me. It’s the spirit within me. When I mentioned this to my family and friends, they looked at me strangely, so I decided to keep it to myself. One thing I’m sure of, age is not a deterrent to the creative process.”
Indeed, and we are glad you didn’t keep all of this to yourself.
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