The New York Times Sunday Book Review February 4, 2001
The Fountain of Age Photographic portraits celebrate African-Americans growing older.
By BARBARA GRIZZUTI HARRISON ELDER GRACE
The Nobility of Aging. Photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. Text by Chester Higgins Jr. and Betsy Kissam. Illustrated.
128 pp. New York: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Company. $40.
As with every stage in life, there are drawbacks to aging,'' the photographer Chester Higgins Jr. says laconically in his introduction to ''Elder Grace.'' His 80 duotone portraits were chosen, he writes, to exemplify the ''seasoned dignity and grace that only older age can impart.'' I find myself, perhaps unreasonably, growing cranky -- and not because Higgins, a staff photographer at The New York Times, betrays his own rather prickly imperative to ''embrace . . . changes as natural'' and to ''see the beauty of the person within.''
Indeed, he is so good a photographer as to persuade us that his subjects are, almost without exception, noble, serene and animated, brave, energetic. Of course, physical change is natural -- if it were not, it would not and could not occur. That does not mean we go so far as to celebrate unnaturally the nasty changes the flesh is heir to. (When was the last time you heard someone say: ''Whoopee! Arthritis! Goody, goody, it's natural''?) Afflictions are as beastly as they are natural, and monstrously more to be dreaded than to be hailed. Aging, Higgins and his co-writer, Betsy Kissam, a magazine journalist, say, ''is learning how to embrace new things.'' That could very well be. It could also very well be that aging is the time to throw out old things and close one's mind to the new. We age, and we die, more or less as we have lived. Almost anything one says about old people may be true, except that they feel hunky-dory all the time. Chester Higgins Jr./ From "Elder Grace"/ Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Company Emelda C. Mills and La Roi Mills, photographed by Chester Higgins Jr.
That is the bad news about a good book. The good news is that there are very few of these portraits that I would not like to own. Many are beautiful. Whatever Higgins says about his subjects, one may wish to discard. Never mind. Read their faces, not their words (each of the subjects is given a sentence to express his or her ''philosophy'': ''I put a great deal of emphasis on positive affirmation. It is my mental fertilizer'').
Read their grief, their faith, their fantastic combination of resignation and hanging on and moving on. Read their tenacity. Watch them daring you to be as strong as they have been through all the days of their lives. Look at the man who has conceit stamped on every feature -- and wears frayed collar and cuffs.
Look at the elderly divas -- how did they arrive at their queenliness and elegance? Look at the married couples -- is it my imagination or do they look happier than the others? Look at the lady coming home from church -- is she engaged in a private conversation with God? Read the gnarled feet of the octogenarian dancer and her smile and her clenched teeth, which hint of pain and of the determination to slam it into the ground. Marvin P. Smith, born in 1910, fought in World War II. He holds his head high. His eyes face a certain future. What is the future for him? I think he knows.
Florence T. Skinner says: ''Treat people with respect. Love the God within them.'' Simple, plain, good. She is a corrections officer. I never liked lawyers, but here is one I want to hug, Agatha Francis, posed with her old aunt: ''My aunt started each day giving thanks to God for another day, and I've learned to do the same. She pointed the way to gratitude for life and from gratitude to grace.'' In my library, there are three books about death that I hold dear: ''Memento Mori,'' by Muriel Spark, ''The View in Winter,'' by Ronald Blythe and ''The Leopard,'' by Lampedusa. Time will tell, but it seems likely I will add ''Elder Grace.''
- Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's books include ''Italian Days'' and ''An Accidental Autobiography.'' Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company