CURRENT BIOGRAPHY/ June 2002
Chester Higgins Jr. Nov. 1946 Photographer; writer
Address: The New York Times , 229 W. 43d St.,
New York, NY 10036-3959


I'm a cultural anthropologist with a camera . . . Chester Higgins Jr. told a writer in an interview that appeared on the Web site abesha.com‘ You know when you write something it's– limited to the language that you write in, whereas photographs, it's not limited to English speakers, French speakers, Luciphone speakers, Amharic speakers . . . everyone knows what a photograph is.


Higgins has been a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1975. He has five books of photography to his–credit: The Black Woman (1970), of Life (1974),–Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black Americans–1850-1950 (1980), Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for– the People of Africa (1994), and
Elder Grace: The Nobility of– (2000)--all of which explore and celebrate, in different–ways, African-American or African heritage, culture, and identity.


Higgins's photographs have appeared in Art News, New York Times Magazine , Newsweek , Fortune , Essence , Archaeology in addition to the New York Times Chester Archer Higgins Jr. was born in November 1946 in Lexington, Kentucky, and grew up in New Brockton, Alabama. He was raised by his mother, Varidee Loretta Young Higgins Smith, and his stepfather, Johnny Frank Smith. In 1970 he graduated from Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), in Tuskegee, Alabama, with a bachelor's degree in business management. While an undergraduate at Tuskegee, Higgins was Mentored by P. H. Polk, the school's official photographer; Polk gave Higgins lessons in photography and interested him in his African-American heritage.


Higgins told Clarence Peterson for the Chicago Tribune (December 4, 1980), I became a photographer in 1967 because there were things I thought should be appreciated that were not being seen, and I figured they would only be seen if I went out and shot them.


Some of his first pictures were of his great-aunts and great-uncles. In 1968, around the time that Higgins bought his first camera, there were civil rights protests by black students at Tuskegee, and Higgins documented the event, compiling his photographs under the title , Student Unrest at Tuskegee Institute.


After graduation–Higgins was in New York showing some of his pictures to various magazine editors when he met Arthur Rothstein, then director of photography at magazine.– Rothstein became another mentor to Higgins, who discovered, at this time, the work of such master photographers as Alfred Stieglitz , Henri Cartier- Bresson , and Gordon Parks.


In 1970 magazine sent Higgins on his first assignment; his job–was to follow and photograph a young civil rights leader named Jesse Jackson as he toured various cities and gave speeches. Higgins was quoted in The New York Times (June 9,1996) as–saying, It got so I could predict how the audience was going to react at a particular moment in the speech, so I could pick a face and be ready with my camera.


In 1970 Higgins published his first book of photographs, The Black Woman , as a response to the prevalence of–stereotyped and negative images of black women. He told Angela Terrell for the Washington Post August 8, 1974), danger of the media was that it could condition people's minds to what other people are supposed to be.
Drums of Life (1974), a follow-up to The Black Woman, features the–photographer's positive images of black men, with an accompanying text by the writer Orde Coombs. Much of Higgins's motivation was to help counterbalance what he saw as the dishonest fantasies in the common depictions of black men. Higgins commented to Terrell that he was interested in the need and desire to project black life, and in having viewers see that my life (the black man) is a full and natural life. In the book, Higgins showed black males as children, young adults, fathers, and husbands.


He worked as a part-time photography instructor at the New York University School of Fine Arts from 1975 to 1978 and took a job as a staff photographer at the New York Times in 1975.


In the meantime he continued his artistic–quest to present more realistic images of blacks.


Higgins recalled to Jacqueline Trescott for the Washington–(December 16, 1980), A teacher of mine told me the–story of a man who used to read a bedtime story to his son about a fight between a man and a lion. The man always won and his son asked how that was so, since the lion was king of the jungle. And the father said the lion will win when he writes his own book.


In 1980 Higgins again wrote his own book: Some Time Ago: A Historical–Portrait of Black Americans 1850-1950. For this project Higgins–searched over the course of four years through more than 40,000 images--pictures that he found in places ranging from cigar boxes and old trunks to the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., and the New York Public Library's Schomburg collection.


From these he culled 200 of his favorite photographs for his book, which contains no pictures taken by Higgins himself. Some Time–features the work of such famous photographers as Dorothea–Lange,Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans and includes pictures of famous African-Americans, including the abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth, the singer Marian Anderson, and the educator Mary McLeod Bethune. There are also photographs of a barber and his customer, a chain gang, children at prayer, and the whip-scarred back of a man who lived during the era of slavery. Higgins told Clarence Peterson about the book.

Because the records are there, you can go back and see for yourself what people were doing, how they lived, and even how they withstood the conditions that were sometimes intolerable. It makes you feel good to see that, against all those odds, those people survived. And it gives you a sense of continuance, of belonging, that you're part of a long tradition.


Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of–Africa was the result of more than 25 years of Higgins's traveling–the world to take pictures that represent the African diaspora. This 303-page book captures in more than 200 photographs the traditions, spirituality, and daily lives of people of African heritage--everyone from tribal dancers in Mali, to voodoo practitioners in Haiti, to black Jews in the Harlem section of New York City, to Yoruba people worshipping in Brazil, to black men and women in rural Alabama.


Two major exhibits of Higgins's photographs from Feeling the Spirit followed the book's publication. One exhibit,– which shared the book's title, was held at the International Center of Photography, in New York; the other, organized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, was titled Invoking the Spirit: Worship Traditions in the African World


The photographs include those of a Brooklyn man holding a Bible, a Ghanaian man blessing his son on a beach, a Mexican statue of a person with African features, the face of a Trinidadian schoolgirl, and a man resting in his boat on the Niger River in Mali, as well as the Door of No Return in Senegal, through which enslaved Africans were sent on ships to the Americas. Higgins told Diane M. Bolz for Smithsonian (Fall 1997), We are Africans not because we–are born in Africa, but because Africa is born in us.


He added, It's the people's characters themselves speaking through the film, through the lens, that tells the story. Eddy L. Harris reviewed Higgins's book for the New York Times (November–20, 1994), writing, Feeling the Spirit is a beautiful book. It–is a big book of photographs, all of them in black and white, all of–
them caught by Mr. Higgins's careful and patient eye. They are images that capture the sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, sometimes painful, sometimes routine daily lives of black people everywhere.


Higgins's latest book of photography is Elder Grace: The–Nobility of Aging, which includes photographs from Higgins's–travelling exhibit of the same name. The book, with a foreword by Maya Angelou, contains 80 individual portraits of elderly African-Americans. Higgins's wife, Betsy Kissam who interviewed the subjects, supplied a quotation from each below his or her photograph.


Higgins told Lyle of The New York Times (February 25, 2001), want people to see my pictures and ask, How can I look like that when I get to be that age?' You can't deny the next day, so accept it, embrace it. wrote, Mr. Higgins has assembled a gallery of the beautiful, the pensive and the noble. . . . By lavishing attention on his subjects and by seeking to apprehend what he calls their shine, or inner light, he captures qualities that continue to make them physically attractive into late age: humor, elegance and dignity.


During the course of his career, Higgins has had one-man exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of African Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Schomburg Center, the Newark Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Field Museum of Natural History. His photographs have also been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, and in American embassy galleries around the world. They are included in the permanent collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, and the Schomburg Center. For his photography Higgins has won a United Nations Award, an American Graphic Design Award, a Graphics Magazine Award, and an Art Directors Club of New–York Award. Higgins was the subject of the PBS film American Photographer: Chester Higgins Jr. , and his work has–aired on the Sunday Morning News,The News
on PBS, and the ABC programs Like It Is, Freedom Forum .


He has received grants from the National–Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. Higgins has lectured on photography at Harvard University and Dartmouth, and he did special photography for Gordon Park's film
Shaft's Big Score (1972).


Higgins married and divorced Renelda Walker, with whom–he has a son, Chester III (also called Damani), and a daughter, Nataki. Higgins's second wife is Betsy Kissam, a magazine journalist. He lives in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York.

-- C.F.T.


Suggested Reading:
Chicago Tribune
I p13 Dec.
4, 1980,–
with photo;
New York
Times
VII p13 Nov. 20, 1994, with–
photos, C p6 Nov. 24, 1995, II p48 Feb. 25, 2001;
Washington–
B p4 Dec. 16, 1980, with photos, C p1 Feb. 19,–
Who's Who Among African Americans 1998-99
=Selected Books:
Some Time Ago
(1980),
Feeling the Spirit
(1994),
Elder Grace
(2000)

 
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