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Bill Cosby's daughter stages exhibit at Art Sanctuary

Erinn Cosby gets a lot of questions about her famous comedian father, but she'd rather talk about her photography.

Erinn Cosby in the Himalayas. It’s on display at a new exhibit at Art Sanctuary called “An Extension of Beauty.”
Erinn Cosby in the Himalayas. It’s on display at a new exhibit at Art Sanctuary called “An Extension of Beauty.”Read more

WITH BEING a real-life Cosby kid come the inevitable questions:

What's Bill Cosby up to? What does he think about Temple University's controversial decision to cut its track-and-field program? Did you catch his recent appearance with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show"? Does Bill still eat Jell-O pudding?

No, I didn't ask his daughter that. It wouldn't have mattered if I did, though, because Erinn Cosby, 46, wouldn't have gone there with me anyway. When we chatted last week by phone, she politely declined to answer questions about her uber-famous dad.

Erinn, the second oldest of Cosby's four daughters, preferred to steer away from the personal and instead focus on her photography exhibit at Art Sanctuary, called "The Extension of Beauty," which runs through Jan. 31.

It's a spin-off of a popular exhibit of Erinn Cosby's work that Art Sanctuary staged in May as part of the 29th annual Celebration of Black Writing. That exhibit, simply called "Beauty," featured images from her travels to Senegal, Cuba, India and the Himalayas.

This new exhibit has photos from that collection as well as new ones. The pieces, 68 in all, are also available for sale, priced from $250 to $4,000.

View them quickly and one of the first things that'll hit you is the abject poverty they document. Put that aside and stay with the images a little longer, and they begin to speak to you. The little boy with the laughing, mischievous eyes. The diminutive African girl selling her day's wares at her very own food stand.

A woman in a long dress gingerly walking across rocks with both of her arms outstretched like she's dancing instead of just trying to keep her balance. Perhaps the most moving photo of the collection is a stark image of a lone black man on Goree Island, walking away from the infamous "Door of No Return."

Gazing at that haunting image, I was reminded of the estimated 20 million Africans who for several hundred years passed through that same point on the 45-acre island off the coast of Senegal and into bondage. In Cosby's photo, a man was walking the opposite way and wearing, of all things, a cheery, bright-red jacket.

"I find beauty in really just about everything that I photograph," said Cosby, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at Temple University who lives in the Philadelphia area. "There are just so many beautiful things that are out there that I see."

Cosby began dabbling in photography when she was just 6. Today, she mostly eschews digital photography for old-school film and makes a point of developing her own photos.

"There are projects that I have to do that are digital," she said, such as her dad's recent TV concert special, "Far From Finished," which she photographed.

"Extension of Beauty," a title Art Sanctuary gave the exhibit since Cosby doesn't like to title her shows, is displayed in a spare gallery that contrasts with the rich color and energy of the images.

"Erinn has an amazing eye," said Valerie Gay, Art Sanctuary's executive director. "If you look at these images, you will see that for the most part, they are in the midst of squalor.

"Somebody can look at this and say, 'Look at these kids,' " Gay said as we paused in front of an image of children on a dock. "But what comes out is amazing beauty. It drives home the fact that beauty is everywhere.

"Beauty can be found everywhere if you have the eyes to see it," Gay added. "Erinn's work epitomizes that to me."

'A camera in my hand'

Erinn Cosby isn't sure exactly what sparked her early interest in photography.

"I just remember always having a camera in my hand," she said during an interview on WHYY last spring. "It really wasn't known to me, really, until I really started looking at photographs and seeing myself with a camera as opposed to always having it in my hand back then. I just loved Polaroids. I ended up going to school, NYU, getting my degree in photography at . . . Tisch [School of the Arts], and everything evolved from there."

Cosby's early life was marked by a cocaine addiction she hid from her parents until seeking treatment in 1989. At the time, her father described his response as "tough love," adding, "She has to beat this on her own."

In a National Enquirer story at the time, Erinn Cosby was quoted as saying: "People see Bill Cosby as a super dad. But I'm proof that drug and alcohol tragedies can happen even in the most loving families."

Through her exhibits, "Beauty" and now "The Extension of Beauty," she reminds us to slow down and appreciate the magnificence of a small child's grin.

"I do feel that people are rushed," Cosby told me. "When you rush, you really can't see very clearly."