The New York Times
Arts and Leisure
Sunday, June 16, 1974
Warm and Gentle, But Incomplete
By A. D. Coleman
In his new book, "Drums of Life: A Photographic Essay on the Black Man in America" (Anchor/Doubleday) Chester Higgins Jr., extends signifanctly the personal documentation he began with his first book, "Black Woman."
Divided as they are in terms of gender, these two volumes must be considered as companion pieces; they are obviously intended to be complimentary. Beyond that, they are apparently meant to serve as cornerstones in a larger and even more ambitious project in which Higgins is involved, other segments of which include a historical survey of black photography and Higgins’s own studies of African in transition.
Both "Drums of Life" and "Black Woman" consist exclusively of photographs of people, seen either individually or in groups. Higgins is essentially a portraitist, carefully tuned to the nuance of gesture, expression and body language, alert to the dynamics and rhythms of group interactions. Almost infallibly, Higgins particularizes his subjects and affirms their individuality; in images involving more that one person he is adept at describing relationships.
These are emotional images, not at all dispassionate, but the photographer rarely slips into sentimentality or cliché. Nor does he force his subjects, or his images, to fit into a single overriding visual style. The consistency of these photographs is not one of graphics, but rather of gentleness, warmth, and precise responsiveness to the uniquenesses of human beings.
As a pair, "Drums of Life" and "Black Woman" share a common flaw: neither essay conveys enough of a sense of what black men and women do in the world. Aside from one dancer, "Black Woman" contains not a single image of anyone involved in any occupation other than mothering. "Drums of Life" does it a bit better, but aside from sections on artists and politicians it offers only a few farmers, a doctor and a barber. Surely this is no longer a comprehensive representation, if it ever was; Higgins might consider rounding out this statement with another essay exploring black men and women as workers and professionals.
The reproduction quality of the book is fair, adequate enough for the images to be readable and attractive, but not especially subtle. For a sense of Higgins as a printmaker, a visit to his current exhibit at Acts of Art Gallery (15 Charles Street in Greenwich Village) is suggested. The show contains prints of images from the new book, and selections from Higgins’ essay on Africa, as well as some odds and ends. He is a diversified printmaker, approaching each image differently. The color prints — his own, I presume — are well-made, and the quality of his black-and-white prints range from good to excellent. All the prints are being offered in a limited, signed edition of three copies each. The exhibit will run through Saturday.