EDITOR & PUBLISHER
April 22, 1978
People-watching pastime pays off for photographer
By Carla Rupp
Chester Higgins Jr., is the first staff photographer to be hired at the New York Times who did not have any experience as a news photographer. Thirty-one years old, he never started making pictures until the summer before his junior year at Tuskegee University. He never worked as a newspaper, which is unusual for anyone working as a journalist at the Times.
He has an interesting view of photography. This information that you give is what gives an image immortality. I try to capture the fullest amount of information that I perceive to be real.
Active in his school’s government, Higgins toured campuses the summer of 1968 when he was 22 with the National Student’s Association offices and saw the problems that black students were having and the emotion stirred up from the Vietnam situation. "I thought that a lot of images were not getting exposure. I bought a camera — a Praktika — a little store in Manhattan, Kansas, during a NSA conference at Kansas State University and put it around my neck.
"I started thinking about the power of the media and of images and took the next couple of rolls in Washington, D.C. At school I photographed some civil rights marches.
Higgins grew up in New Brockton, a little agricultural town of 800 people in the southeast corner of Alabama 90 miles south of Montgomery. He was raised by a mother, a schoolteacher and stepfather who owned a dry cleaners. His grandfather made the barn available to him and Chester used it as a laboratory for his biology experiments.
He also had a great interest in electricity, taking radios apart and learn how they worked. When he was 13, he had a job as an electrician-plumber in a neighboring town: the next summer, he worked in the repair shop of a furniture store fixing televisions and trying to understand all he could about circuitry.
Besides being busy with science fairs, Chester played in the woods where he lived and "went out to catch animals and devise ways to preserve them. We did play-acting and got close to nature.
"I think I take the same attitude towards photography as I did towards everything as a youngster. My life has always been an investigation of everything around me. I took the same attitude towards electronics and biology that I now take with photography.
"In the summer when school was out, I would sit by the side of the road and just watch people. My mother would tell me to stop staring. I find the whole living experience fascinating," Chester says. To him, photography is another way of communicating his views about the world. "To me that’s the way it has to be."
Although he majored in business management and sociology at Tuskegee, Higgins’ sideline near the end was putting together a portfolio of picture essays on black women and showing the "identity movement they were going through."
Higgins had spent a summer and a semester at Harvard in a unique exchange program while at Tuskegee and the professors encouraged him always try to seek the advice of experts. "My aim is to improve myself." He took his pictures of black women to New York for the first time in the summer of 1969 and went to Time, Life, McCall’s, and Newsweek. "I didn’t get too far with getting advise until I came to Look magazine and met Arthur Rothstein, who was director of photography there then.
"Arthur was the only one who saw my potential. Almost every other day I went in to Look while I stayed with friends in Brooklyn that summer. I found that New York City is like a university without walls on a visual research level. You have so many professors — other photographers, museums and galleries."
Rothstein, associate editor in charge of photography at Parade magazine whose photographs are known as art in New York, said over lunch with his protégé Higgins, "Chester seemed to have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. But he didn’t have the technical skills; I tried to explain that to him. But I told Chester that whenever he came to New York, he could see me. So in the next year after that summer he came a lot to see me and also developed a relationship with my Look assistants Paul Fusco and Joel Baldwin" Rothstein had photographed George Washington Carver at Tuskegee the year before he died.
I stuck to getting technical skills because I wanted to learn. Lighting, composition and sensitivity were the most things that Mr. Rothstein taught me. He taught me organization of visual material and maximizing on the use of space. He sent me to the Museum of Modern Art to study the master paintings and then compare notes with him on what I saw." says Higgins. "He became my mentor and advisor after I got serious about photography.
Starting to freelance, Higgins was introduced to the American Society of Magazine Photographers where he learned he could work for $150 and over a day rather than $40-50. The Look photo lab did most of Higgins’s processing, and Rothstein gave Higgins a lot of film. "There’s no doubt I helped his career. But the greatest satisfaction an older photographer can have in his work is helping younger photographers achieve something." Says Rothstein, who cited producer Stanley Kubrick, of "2001 Space Odyssey" fame, "I helped Kubrick in his early days when he was a staff photographer at Look. They way you achieve immortality is to pass on to others the knowledge and experience you have. Chester took advantage of what I had to offer."
When Higgins had graduated tops in his business class from Tuskegee in 1970, he had a job offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul. "I didn’t know if I could make it in New York as a photographer. I had a girlfriend from college who was pregnant. So June 1, 1970, I took a free plane ticket to St. Paul for the job interview at the business. I decided business wasn’t for me and changed the ticket to fly to New York with nothing, after turning down a job that would have been security. I lived with a filmmaker in Harlem. I had to make money to bring my girlfriend to New York. She had the baby in September of 1970, the publication date of Higgins’ first hardback book, "Black Woman," published by McCall’s, which had a book company. It sold 15,000 copies.
Since then, Higgins put other picture books together — "Drums of Life," published in 1974 by Doubleday and "My Name is Black," with Amanda Ambrose’ poetry published by Scholastic Publications, and his "Some Time Ago" picture book is to be published by Doubleday in November 1978.
Higgins did the photography for Kathryn Parker’s book on the Mets, "We Won Today," by Doubleday. He did the book covers for poet Nikki Giovanni’s books, "Gemini" and "Re-Creation," the covers for Dr. Charles Hamilton’s "Preacher Man" and for Minister Farrakhan’s "Seven Speeches."
In 1971, Higgins took his girlfriend Renelda, back to Tuskegee for their marriage in a judge’s chambers. "A friend held Nataki, who was seven months. It was great, and Renelda wore jeans." They now live at Roosevelt Island, reached by tramway from the city, and Nataki is seven and another boy, Damani is five.
"I’ve been to different parts of Africa twelve times in the last seven years working on a photographic project I have established for myself." Says Higgins. Human behavior in another culture fascinates him, he says. "I think a photographer does best what he understands.
"My starting point was black people because I know them."
Higgins’ thought of working for the New York Times came after he returned from one of his African trips photographing the drought in the Sahara. "I was in John Morris’ office, the head of the Times picture syndication service, showing him the Sahara pictures, and he said the Times was looking for a photographer and asked if I was interested." I said no. I told my wife about it. She thought I was crazy and made a mistake. I called him back the next day and said, "Sure, I’d love to."
"I had an interview with the managing editor Abe Rosenthal for a couple of hours. We talked about photography, and he introduced me to the photo editor. Abe offered me the job and I accepted." Higgins said he couldn’t start working for the Times for another six months because of another commitment.
The United States Information Agency had asked Higgins to do a "retrospective" of his photographic work. For the U.S.I.A., Higgins traveled through nine African countries for six weeks exhibiting his books. "Black Woman" and "Drums of Life." Some of these countries Higgins feels the "black experience" in, have been Nigeria, Senegal, Zaire, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania. Those exhibits went to twenty other African countries and to about ten European countries on to South America, and to Asia for the U.S.I.A.
Higgins started on contract with the New York Times on March 30, 1975. His pictures recently have been given top notice from publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. His shot of a woman knitting facing a live reindeer on the tramway won the New York Times Publishers Award, an in-house award in photography for "capturing a particular slice of life." His human portrayal of Serkin and Stern laughing at the piano during an evening at Carnegie Hall also won the Publisher’s Award.
Higgins has seen some pictures take an ironic turn. He took a routine picture of State Supreme Court Justice Murtagh and the next day the judge died, and Higgins photo landed on the front page.
"I don’t approve of things in terms of today, but I look for what is forever about a photo in a moment. I try to make pictures timeless. One thing the Times can do is to further its ‘paper of record’ through visuals by giving not only information, but more perspective in its photography."
Higgins has some criticism of photojournalists. "The news photographer has always been very literal. I contend that news photography of value has an opportunity to be more than literal. It should serve as an analytical force, and it can even motivate to action.
"Photography should be exploited to its fullness in being an instrument of analysis and introspection.
My function is to learn how to see." For instance, when he did some fashion photography for the Times, Higgins didn’t focus on the clothing, but he said he looked for "what it does to the person?"
Higgins has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, the New School, Dartmouth, Tuskegee, the universities of Maryland and Virginia, and in African schools, he has appeared on NET shows, "Black Journal," "Positively Black" and "Soul" and ABC’s "A.M. New York," and NBC’s "Today Show," and on other talk shows. He did publicity stills for MGM’s "Shaft Big Score" and NET’s "Bill Moyers Journal."
"I’m really driven to accomplish a lot," says Higgins, who has published in Look, Life, Time, Ebony, Essence, Encore, Infinity, Jet, Black World, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Tuesday, the Washington Post, TV Guide and 35mm Photography and even done record covers for Don L. Lee of Rappin and Sonny Till & the Orioles for RCA. His works have been reviewed by the Times, the New York Post, the Daily News, Amsterdam News and Ebony.