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Chester Higgins Jr., Photographer

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Chester Higgins Jr.

Photo by Lorenzo Bevilacqua

BrotherMen: They Were and Are Our Prophets and Griots, by Demetria Royals

BrotherMan Chester Higgins, Jr. is quite clear. He will not leave this planet undeclared. He also will not depart this earth without documenting -- through photography -- African Americans, Africans, and African of the Diaspora.

Educated at a historically Black college, he found that one teacher of African descent who accepted that his assignment was to get the next generation prepared for a society that would be all too willing and ready to convince Black students of their lack of worth and talent. His Professor was the late P. H. Polk, photographer at Tuskegee University and the official photographer for Booker T. Washington.

Chester recalls that, with the arrogance of youth, he wanted to borrow Mr. Polks's camera (not knowing how to operate the camera). Mr. Polk after a short lesson allowed him to take the camera home on weekends. Thus, one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation was able to begin his work, simply because he wanted to document his "family tree" and he had someone who believed that he had not only the right, but also the talent, to do so.

Chester Higgins comes from a small town in Alabama, raised by a strong family of women and men within a community that prepared him for the larger society, simply by teaching him his legacy, of others who had come before him and paid the price, so that he and his generation could start their run, already a little closer to the finish line.

He also knew of the many whom had not been given the chance to run the race as he had, and his way of remembering those faces and names was to document their existence.

Combining a staff photographer position at The New York Times with a commitment to carry out his own assignment, he provided for me and others through his work a teaching manual, a way to begin to see and imagine how Black people were entitled to be documented. That lesson I would not learn in the technical classes at New York University Graduate Film School, where I was enrolled and would graduate from with my Master of Fine Arts degree.

Those lessons of framing, composition and lighting were taught to me as I studied his works, such as the books "The Black Woman"and "Drums of Life," and continues with "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa" and his most recent work, "Elder Grace." In the faces of these elders, you see that they have run the race, kept the faith, and kept their humanity intact.

We are all blessed by his work and I am grateful that through his work, Chester Higgins became my first visual arts teacher.

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Artist Biography

The photography of Chester Higgins, Jr. can be found within the pages of The New York Times, where he has been a staff photographer since 1975. As one of the premiere African American photographers working today, he continues to exhibit in museums throughout the country and abroad.

Mr. Higgins is the recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Center of Photography, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. His photographs have appeared in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Ebony, Essence and Black Enterprise. Mr. Higgins has produced seminal works in the photo-essay form such as the book collections "Black Woman" and "Drums of Life" and most recently, "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa," and "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging."

An exhibit of his recent work, "Landscapes of the Soul," toured nationally (including the Smithsonian) and was shown at The Museum for African Art in New York City in March, 1999. The show, in a review by the New York Times, noted his series of work on Black women as "a masterpiece in form, lighting and style."

In BrotherMen, images from this exhibition and others are intercut with an on-site interview with Mr. Higgins at the museum and at work photographing an elderly Black woman, whom with deep affection and love he refers to as one of the "snow heads," paying homage to the wisdom and style of the elders he portrays.

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Selected Works

The exhibit:
"Landscapes of the Soul: Women of the African Diaspora"

The books:
"Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa"
(Bantam Books, 1994)

"Elder Grace"
(Bullfinch/Little Brown and Company, 2000)

Related Links

Mirador Magazine: Elder Grace Online Exhibit
New York Historical Society: Exhibit Notes
Global Action on Aging: Essay on Higgins' Photographs
Amazon.com: Elder Grace, Feeling the Spirit


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