The photographs of Chester Higgins, Jr. capture a certain grace. His work, rich in both shadow and light, evokes the warmth and dignity of his subjects while, at the same time, illustrating his commitment to his artistry. A practiced, visual ethnographer who has worked in more than thirty countries, he often describes himself as “a cultural anthropologist with a camera.”
And for over thirty years, Chester Higgins has been photographing and documenting the spirit of the African Diaspora. Born in a small town in Alabama in 1946, Higgins studied photography with P.H. Polk while attending Tuskegee University. After seeing Polk’s work, Higgins realized that he could use the camera to create realistic portraits of black culture, images vastly different from the ones prevalent in the South at the time. He started close to home, taking a portrait of his great aunt Shugg. Higgins would eventually become a staff photographer for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1975. He has authored seven books, including Through These Eyes: The Photographs of P. H. Polk, Black Woman, Drums of Life, Some Time Ago, Feeling the Spirit, and Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging. A ten-year photographic project, Elder Grace is currently on display at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum as part of Exhibiting Signs of Age, a larger survey on representations of aging in modern and contemporary art. His latest collection of photographs, Echo of the Spirit, focuses on the land and people of Egypt and will be released next year. The breadth of the photographer’s work can be seen on his website at www.chesterhiggins.com. Higgins uses the camera “to search for three essential elements in documenting people of African descent: decency, dignity, and character,” and comments that “photography has been a tool in which to share those moments and those images of my people that are rarely seen.” A widely-renowned photographer who earned an MFA from New York University, Higgins counts the artist Romare Bearden and the photographers Cornell Capa, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein among his mentors.
He has received grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the International Center of Photography (ICP), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and his photographs have appeared in publications including Archaeology, ARTnews, Black Enterprise, Ebony, Essence, Fortune, Newsweek, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. His work has also been the subject of two PBS films, An American Photographer: Chester Higgins, Jr., and Brotherman. Higgins has exhibited internationally, and has had solo shows at the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of African Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Newark Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Smithsonian Institution. His exhibition, Feeling the Sprit, attracted more than 20,000 visitors when it was held at ICP in 1995. Encouraged by his great uncle, who died at 108, to “make a mark on life, or die undeclared,” Higgins has already achieved the goal once set out for him. His initial desire to photograph his family has led him to create “a photographic encyclopedia of the life and times of people of African descent.” But whether he’s photographing his great aunt or the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the photographs of Chester Higgins capture an extraordinary solemnity, intimacy, and grace.
This text was originally published in the December 2003 issue of Black & White magazine, number 28, in accompaniment with the article, Reflections in Black: Celebrating African Americans in Photography.