THE NEW YORK AMSTERDAM NEWS
Thursday, December 30, 2004-Wednesday, January 5, 2005
"Memoirs of a Black TIMES photographer"
By Damaso Reyes
"We lived on the edge. Growing from childhood to young adulthood as an African American in the state of Alabama had its moments of joy and times of terror," Chester Higgins Jr. writes in "Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey." "Tension could turn to terror instantly. It was like being in a cage with a rattlesnake and not knowing when the snake would attack. There was the ever-present possibility of instant death by white criminal behavior, protected by the privilege of skin color. The very presence of a white person among us held the possibility of being killed."
"Echo of the Spirit" is part monograph, part memoir of an image-maker who has never stopped searching for what he feels is the spirit that binds us all together. The author of five books, Chester Higgins Jr., has been a staff photographer for The New York Times for nearly thirty years and in that time has traveled the globe making images, which speak to both the flow of history as well as that particular moment in time. His latest work gives the reader an insight into the journey that made him the photographer he is today, from a childhood steeped in the church of New Brockton, Alabama, to a young man trying to create positive images of people of color during the turbulent 1960s at Tuskegee University to the established photographer trying to find his own voice in the midst of divorce. "Echo of the Spirit" gives us an unreserved glimpse into a life that has seen its share of sorrow but has not succumbed to it.
In many ways the book can be separated into America and Africa, not that the author ever really creates that distinction himself. But it is clear from his first trip to his fifteenth, Africa has been a touchstone; a source of inspiration for a photographer who from all of his life has been searching for that which many believe began in Africa. In every chapter, written with the tight but descriptive tone that newspaper folk specialize in, we learn how the world around Mr. Higgins has impacted him, from his upbringings in the segregated South to his travels to Ethiopia, Egypt and West Africa.
"When I first set foot in Africa, I was full of anticipation. Finally I was to discover for myself the parallel Black reality I had long nourished in my imagination. I was exhilarated at suddenly finding myself in the majority."
It is hard to say whether the book is more interesting visually or textually, but I think Chester may have eclipsed his images with his words. Honestly the two are closely intertwined and the images serve as a kind of scrapbook in the very best sense of the word. All too often we photographers are represented by images that editors choose, often not our best ones and rarely ones that have a deep personal significance. In this volume the photographer has chosen images, which are only important to his inner journey, and the value of this opportunity is not lost on the viewer. Finally, we get to see the images that the photographer holds most dear, ones that have a personal significance.
"Echo of the Spirit," just published by Doubleday, is a wonderful memoir by a photographer at the height of his powers.