A view of America through the lens of photographer Adger Cowans

NEW YORK -- At a recent book signing in Harlem, the “Personal Vision” of 80-year old photographer Adger Cowans was on full display.

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Adger Cowans

CBS News

“I never had a book of my work before,” Cowans said. “Never ever.”

For Cowans, it started in rural Ohio, growing up in the midst of the Great Depression. In 1958, he became one of the first African-Americans to earn a degree in photography from Ohio State

He decided to write a letter to the only black photographer he’d ever heard of: Gordon Parks, whose images of the Jim Crow South made him world-famous.

“He said, ‘well you can live here with me and my family and you can work with me at Life Magazine,’” Cowans said.

Cowans would work with Parks for two years before pointing his own lens toward everyday life. Cowans says it took more emotion than skill.

“I feel that’s what I do when I take a picture … when you have that, you get that rush, a feeling inside of you, you say ‘I have it, I know I have it, I felt it,’” he said.

By the mid-1960s he was capturing celebrities like Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis, Sarah Vaughn and Mick Jagger.

But it would be on movie sets like “On Golden Pond” where Cowans would make history, becoming the first African-American Hollywood still photographer.

“First of all, when they saw me, they assumed that I was there to deliver something you know,” Cowans said with a laugh. “’What is this black guy here doing on this set?’”

He has worked on more than 30 films, and even at 80,  he’s still expanding his craft, working with water and light.

Asked what he has meant to the world of photography, Cowans replied, “I don’t think like that. Spirit touches me and something comes out. It belongs with the world, it doesn’t belong with me.”

And now, everyone can have their own copy.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.