Dialogue/voicing the arts November/December 2001 Columbus, OH
Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging Photography by Chester Higgins Jr.
King Arts Complex June 07 ñ September 08, 2001
By J. Ronald Green
Chester Higgins, graduate of Tuskegee University, worked for Look magazine and has been staff photographer at the New York Times since 1975; his journalistic intentions in the book and show, ìElder Grace,î are stated in one quotation: ìI asked my subjectsÖto be co-conspirators in a broader social experimentÖThe resulting portraits are of people who are no longer filled with the vanity of youth.î Another quotation reveals equally strong artistic intentions: ìI was very interested in exploring the contrasts between black faces and white hair.î
The portraits that make up the ìElder Graceî exhibition emerge from dark backgrounds. The sumptuous images at first seem too commercial, not art-world enough for a gallery show. With fuller dark adjustment, however, the pictures reveal a sophisticated play of rhetorical and aesthetic forces ó the faces are commercial-size, suitable for the lobbies of banks and for small billboards, but the faces are of people like us, with no trace of corporate manipulation; the subjects have control of their own images, the artist having put his skills in their hands. On the one hand, the technical quality is outstanding, but on the other the subjects do not take on the sickening gloss of overproduction. The technical brilliance of the portraits invites idealization, but the experience remains anchored in the material world. While the photographer ruthlessly depicts every wrinkle of elderly skin, every recalcitrant mole, age spot, and nose hair, each subject has been encouraged to present her/himself as attractively as possible. In fact, the varied beauty of the hair in this show is a tour de force.
No room is allowed for types. James A. Phillips (each portraitís title is the name of the sitter), for example, is not of a ìtypeî who wears a chain and medallion. He is a man whose sculpted face is framed by a visual object as significant to him as the experience in his eyes ó a scales-of-justice medallion surrounded by a wreath-like circle of metallic waves and a line of braided light ó it is like a grace note in classical music. Grace notes ñ something like the punctums or ìpunctuationsî described in Roland Barthesí writings on photography ó become discernible in every picture. In the portrait of Joseph Merriweather, the grace notes are his long eyelashes and the tiny white hairs that sparkle off his right eyebrow into the surrounding blackness. Grace notes swarm in the netting of Beatrice Stroudís hat, anchored by two intense pinpricks of light in her eyes. Margaret Inez Whitneyís grace note is one of the strongest in the show and it needs to be because of the seismic play of forms in this photograph. Her powerful head ó chin forward, mouth set, neck tensed ó holds the high ground of the picture by strength of will. The clashing forces of light and dark, white and black, are welded together by the riveting gaze in her left eye, which anchors all the forces in the picture while anchoring the viewer to the person in the portrait. Once we notice this eye, it goes right through us. The exhibition and the book reward the journalistic and the aesthetic search for ìElder Graceî in each of the portraits.
J. Ronald Gree teaches film studies in the department of history of art at the Ohio State University. He also writes for other journals, including afterimage, Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, Black Film Review and Griffithiana.