By Luan Gaines
Echo of the Spirit, A Photographer's Journey,
Chester Higgins, Jr. 5 stars
This is a book of extraordinarily powerful images, a series of black and white photographs that define one man's journey through the years, rich with self-discovery and an awareness of the world he inhabits, from the deep South of the Civil Rights Era to the distant shores of Africa, where he traveled in search of his roots.
As a child preacher in Alabama, Chester Higgins felt the Spirit early, surrounded by family, from cousins to the ancient flesh of aunties and uncles, the ancestry of blood that so defines each of us. The first half of the book is about family, as seen through Higgins' discerning eye, "Within the Blood". There is a clear sense of place in these images, a world filled with familiar faces and day after day of crushing routine, lightened by fervent prayer and joyful family gatherings.
During the Civil Rights Era, Higgins was concerned that the media might miss an important part of the story, the positive force that was emerging; he determined to photograph this process, the great culture clash with its violence and rage, but also the triumph of positive change, a commitment to the generations that would follow. By contrast, the black and white photographs clearly witness the strength of a people determined to forge ahead, comforting one another through their trials.
The second part of the book is about personal discovery, as Higgins journeys to Africa in "Water of Change". In Africa there is an awareness of the great connections of mankind, of one culture's ties to another, both through ancestry and humanity. The photographs capture the face of Africa, the stunning people and resonance of place, how such an experience changes the soul.
P.H. Polk, Arthur Rothstein, Cornell Capa and Romare Bearden were all influential as Higgins' career evolved, mentors, guides and friends, but the eye is distinctly that of the author, his images arresting for their exceptional quality and as a reflection of the humanity that imbues his work.
This photographer has an exceptional gift; his camera lens offers a unique perspective of the world, both personal and the one where we all live. It is possible to look deeply into these photographs, to find a place there, an identity and a belonging. The narrative that accompanies the images adds to the quality of the book, deeply personal and haunting, shared stories and memories from childhood as well as a new awareness, the great awakening that comes with personal growth. Higgins' body of work is transformed by his maturity, an understanding of all the facets of contemporary life, personal memory as well as cultural identity.
It is a joy to leaf through page after page of evocative images, the beauty of landscape and ancestral recognition caught in the flash of a moment. The thoughtful commentary brings the spirit of this artist alive in a satisfying meeting of art and personality, a treasury of one man's commitment to his time on this earth.