Looking at a picture he took in the summer of 2020 during the racial justice protests in Louisville, Edward White explained that his photography “is about capturing the essence of the spirit.”
The photo is a horizontal portrait of a woman with long hair and sunglasses. Her t-shirt reads “I CAN’T BREATHE.”
“So when I point that camera, I’m looking for the essence,” he said.
The photo is one of thousands that White has taken over the years. They’ve mostly sat on his computer or stored in boxes. But today, they’re hanging on the walls of the Portland Museum in Louisville for his first solo exhibition.
“Edward R. White, Returning Home: A Life’s Retrospective” opens Sunday and runs through April 8.
For White, this show is a sort of coming out as a visual artist.
Until now, his public life has largely been defined by a nonprofit focused on empowering youth in the west end through music, specifically Pan-African drumming and rhythm culture.
In 1990, White and his late wife, Zambia Nkrumah, founded the River City Drum Corps. And over the next several decades, his work with the group earned him a number of prestigious accolades, including a Governor’s Awards in the Arts, Louisville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award and the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Awards. The organization gained national prominence, and was the subject of a documentary film.
In between rehearsals, lessons and shows, White quietly built a catalog of photography.
“As I was doing drum corps, I still had this desire to do, desire to create,” he said. “Even though River City Drum Corps is an art form within itself, I was the director and not actually participating and creating it.”
He’d take pictures of the drum corps musicians. He’d snap shots at festivals and events they performed at, like a photo from several years at the Newburg Day Parade. It features a young girl running through a dense batch of bubbles.
“I see the world in photographs … because that’s the way my brain works,” he said while looking around at the images in the Portland Museum gallery.
White grew up in Portland; the third generation of his family to do so. His brothers played sports, and he was encouraged to do the same.
“And that is the avenue that, you know, so many African American males say that is their way out,” he said.
White, however, loved the arts. He said his mother had a background in music and his father worked in construction.
“He built things. He created things … I watched all of that and that kind of stuck with me, the ability to do that, look at that, and say, ‘Well, let me look at this. I can figure this out, I think I could build it,’” White said.
He got hooked on photography in his late 20s. White took photography classes at the Jefferson Community and Technical College and wanted to go to photojournalism school. But it didn’t seem possible to pivot to a new career, he said. White already had a good job at the Portland Boys and Girls Club and that gig led to more community work, which then led to the drum corps.
White officially retired from River City Drum Corps several years ago, passing it on to a drum corps alum and mentee.
White is well known for his musical work, “but now it’s time for him, in his career, to kind of rebirth into what he wants,” Portland Museum executive director Katy Delahanty said.
White is on the museum’s board, and Delahanty credits him as being a mentor.
“He has been such a prolific artist, and has so much work that has not been seen.”
The exhibition is not just of White’s photography. It also features his sculpture, ceramics, including his collection of ceramic bow ties, one of the many mediums he’s worked in.
Now, with his 70th birthday approaching, White has the conviction to share the art that’s been so integral to his life: “From here on out, this is what I’m gonna do, from here on out.”
White said that feels “liberating.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.