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