I was fortunate to have a coffee with the distinguished, New York based photographer, Howard Cash. We met at the MIST Café in Harlem, and sat beneath the words of South African freedom fighter, Steve Biko:
“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”
It was a fitting backdrop for the conversation that would ensue since Howard Cash is a person who has devoted his life and talents to the timeless realm of ideas.
According to Cash, Biko did not have financial wealth but his “philosophy on life was a great catalyst to overcoming apartheid in South Africa. [He] left us a legacy … of the importance of vigilance especially when you’re dealing with a society that seeks to marginalize and imprison you in their own beliefs.”
Howard Cash fights for the consciousness of his people while nourishing his own mindfulness through his ongoing production of powerful and nuanced images of Black life.
His long and storied career has left Cash with a bounty of wisdom that he is determined to share with the next generation. His legacy, he portends, will be secured by his images being placed securely in the hands of collectors, museums, archives and his own book, which he aims to have published by 2017. But while he is still able to, Howard Cash is committed to seeing that the ball that he picked up from the photography greats who came before him, is passed on to young talent.
As an African-American photographer who came of age during legalized segregation, Howard Cash grew up with a dearth of mainstream, positive imagery of Africa and African-American life. After a camera provided him with an avenue for self-expression, he committed himself to capturing imagery that not only offered a more accurate version of the existence he knew within his home and community, but that also added an essential, positive, balancing force to the visual language of the time.
“I prefer to live in a world [of] imagery, [of] photographs that inspire us, awaken us, [and] inform us of how we can look at ourselves in a more whole perspective, a perspective that’s much greater; of the things that we have not been taught.”
Today Mr. Cash notes that there are many more African-American, African-Caribbean, and African photographers creating a much broader range of images. Therefore the depiction of Black life is rich, diverse and global. He regards this as success. Yet the pressing questions remain:
“How do you get [these images] into a format or platform that can be viewed, cherished and collected by Africans and African-Americans and so on?
How do you get these images into their homes?”
Cash wants to see the African-American community define and promote an agenda of its own, just as each day he witnesses mainstream magazines, newspapers and other forms of media in rigid service to their own priorities. The image-makers who bring a wider view of the world back to their communities have already achieved a level of success through this act of affirmation and enlightenment. But Cash questions how to turn this into significant monetary reward as well.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar business and we’re nowhere near that level of playing the game.”
On Taking Your Photography Practice to the Next Level:
- Understand human beings. Understand the human story
- Get the standard of your work up to a high level. This can mean years of learning and studying
- Position yourself in the market. Define your trademark (genre)
- Find mentorship, people who are 10-20 years ahead of you, who have been published, who have delivered lectures, who can critically evaluate your work at a positive level
- Continuously strengthen your portfolio so that you can communicate concisely to viewers and clients
- Build your credibility through talks and exhibitions
- Create a team with diverse skills and connections – people who can talk to curators, gallerists, collectors, corporations, publishers; an assistant who can handle your day to day bookings and correspondence; people who can take your work outside of your community; people who understand the conversation.
- The bottom line is you have to be doing good work.
On the Artist vs the Shutterbug:
Don’t let the myriad of fancy digital cameras slung around the necks of tourists in Times Square or the Smartphone snapaholics fool you. According to Howard Cash, years of study and dedication form the demarcation between artist and hobbyist.
In response to skeptics who question why they should pay for photography when they “can do it themselves,” Cash points out the following:
“[C]an you put together a consistent body of work that speaks of a certain level of excellence, a certain level of dedication to the field of photography and to the world?
[L]et’s not confuse the shutterbug with the artist – the person who is able to create artistic imagery from the same camera the shutterbug is using.
It … has to do sometimes with study.
Most photographers have a library, even [those who are] self-taught. We spend time in conferences, seminars; we spend time in Barnes and Noble. [We] spend time at museums … art exhibitions, photo exhibitions … It’s more of a lifestyle … than it is an event in our lives.
So the question is, are you able to put together a body of work that has a stamp of excellence on it? And if you can’t, then collect [the work of] those that can.”
On Art Appreciation:
Howard Cash weighed in on the pros and cons of the Internet and how it has shaped possibilities of researching, marketing, distributing and collecting art. While having an online presence makes his work immediately accessible to a much wider audience, especially internationally, it also leaves his intellectual property vulnerable to theft and misuse. However, he believes firmly in keeping himself in the game and makes full use of social media.
The traditional avenues for the distribution of artworks remain crucial though, and Cash spoke at length about the culture of exhibitions, galleries, museums and private collectors. Of particular note was the idea of the ‘secondary market’ that exists within the art world. It includes investors who can purchase artworks at prices that can sometimes be inflated, but can hold onto these works for profitable resale; or in order to amass collections that can then move through museums and other exhibition spaces.
“Any evolved culture, any culture, collects and preserves their imagery.”
On the Mind of the Hunter:
Cash describes the process of making an image as having an ‘internal energy’ to it. He says:
“First, I have a conversation with myself.
Then I have a conversation with my audience.
Finally, I have a conversation with history.”
According to Cash, the solitary element of photography exists as the photographer grapples with his or her own intentions – how he perceives what he is doing; how she is able to translate this intent; how the photographer positions him- or herself with regard to the subject at hand.
Howard Cash prepares for a shoot by researching the history of the person, location or event; scouting the site for lighting conditions, angles, or even something as simple as good parking; and engaging in pre-visualization of the idea that he will transform into a visual document.
He considers his mentality to be that of a warrior or hunter.
On Disappointments and Satisfaction:
Howard Cash describes every shoot as coming with its ups and downs. Rather than dwelling on the negative, he simply does the very best that he can on every given day and accepts the outcomes he is dealt. He mentioned that staying in business means avoiding “foolishness” but if you happen to do something incredibly foolish, you had better take the lesson from it and be sure not to repeat.
For Mr. Cash, a truly satisfying moment is one when he can find his own energy clearly reflected at him in an image that he has made. He describes one such moment as the capture of his piece, Angels on the Beach. It was created at an annual commemoration in honor of lives lost during the transatlantic slave trade. Although Howard had researched the works made by other photographers around this topic, the shoot took place at the crack of dawn and he did not know exactly what to expect. In his words, this image
“allows the connection between myself, spirituality, our people and our ancestors that died in the middle passage. To me, it represents depth in terms of value or meaning that goes far beyond just the picture.
[A]s Maya Angelou says, “I am the hope of the slave.” I am the one that the ancestors have decided, through whatever, is able to do something [so] that their lives lost in that ocean are not in vain. It keeps me … connected to a purpose; [reminds me of] how I should conduct my life even beyond photography, in terms of dealing with people, dealing with myself, respecting my worth and the value of others; and being [thankful] for having a gift, thankful for having a profession that allows me to relate … to something that will be around for longer than [I am].”
On Black Women:
In his early sixties, Mr. Cash, who defines himself as “a romantic,” is single. He sees his chosen profession as somewhat of a hindrance to achieving marital bliss. By his account, many of his colleagues have been married and divorced several times, finding it challenging to find a partner who is understanding and supportive of the single-mindedness of their mission. Eventually a partner will need more attention and focus within the relationship than their commitment to photography allows them to give.
Mr. Cash emphasizes the importance of family however, and recounted the lifetime of support that he has received from his family members, and particularly from his mother. He is involved in the design, production and sale of political paraphernalia, an interest he inherited from his mother.
“When Obama ran we made about 35 [button] designs that wound up in time capsules and sold all across the country. That’s my mother’s side of my life. She used to work for Robert Kennedy when he was running for president back in the day. So that’s her side of my life.”
Clearly, it was an impressive Black woman who imbued Howard Cash with the spirit of independence and entrepreneurship that has allowed him to dedicate himself to the art and business of photography.
Howard Cash has a deep respect for history and cites strong influence from historic figures, ranging from the eminent characters of the Harlem Renaissance, to inventors, scholars and performing artists from all over the world. I asked him to name a historic figure he would love to meet, and the choice was effortless – Langston Hughes, because he was one of “those cats who values being Black.”