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Calvin Hicks dies at 71; his photos chronicled black life in L.A.

Calvin Hicks co-founded a gallery to showcase the work of African American photographers and founded a nonprofit to preserve their art in California.

May 30, 2012|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Calvin Hicks was known for his fine-art photographs of sinuous, sculptural nudes from the mid-1970s that are reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Calvin Hicks was known for his fine-art photographs of sinuous, sculptural…

Calvin Hicks, a photographer who documented the nuances of daily African American life in Los Angeles and co-founded an association and gallery to preserve and display the work of black photographers, died May 20 at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center after a long battle with cancer, said his friend B. Scottye Price. He was 71.

When he struggled to find a space to exhibit his photographs, Hicks co-founded Black Gallery in 1984 in the old Santa Barbara Plaza in Baldwin Hills.

"If you were a person of color, you weren't getting very many shows in the area. We took it upon ourselves to do that," said Donald Bernard, one of the gallery's four founders.

At the time, Black Gallery was "the only option around" that would stage shows by African American photographers, Bernard said. The gallery remained open until 1998.

In 1984, Hicks also helped found the Black Photographers of California, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and presenting images by the state's African American photographers. The group's archives and 500 photographs by Hicks are now part of an extensive collection of work by African American photographers at Cal State University Northridge's Institute for Arts and Media.

He was known for his fine-art photographs of sinuous, sculptural nudes from the mid-1970s that are reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe. Hicks "cut his teeth" on documentary and street photography, Bernard said, and documented the Venice Beach scene and the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

Last fall, Hicks was one of a dozen local black photographers whose work was showcased in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition "Identity & Affirmation: Post War African-American Photography" at Cal State Northridge.

His images were also included in the 1992 book "Life in a Day of Black L.A.: The Way We See It" and in a subsequent 1993 exhibit culled from the book and staged at the California African American Museum.

The son of a coal miner, Calvin Robert Hicks was born March 19, 1941, in Mt. Carbon, W.Va., and took to photography after receiving a camera as a gift when he was about 11.

After earning a bachelor's degree in art education in 1965 from West Virginia State College, he taught high school art. Hicks married and in 1968 moved to Los Angeles, where he began a 40-year career as a county probation officer. His first marriage ended in divorce.

Hicks continued to study photography and art, including at what is now Otis College of Art and Design.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce Elaine, whom he married in 2006; his daughters, Sheli Arnold and Elizabeth Barrett; three stepchildren, Bryan Rice, Maria Rice and Denise Grimes; brothers George and William; and nine grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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