Elder Grace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elder Grace by Chester Higgins Jr.


In the course of life when we are younger, we want to be older. But as we age, we flip-flop: suddenly we want to stay young.


Perhaps this is a universal truth, but there can be no doubt that it is militantly accurate today. We, as a society, do not honor our elders, and as a result very few of us are emotionally comfortable within older bodies. Individuals who blossom and season well today are on their own special paths. They are in my mind beacons, perhaps even national treasures, that we as a society, not only need to appreciate and applaud, but to study and emulate. Not the products of our society, these people are products of their own inner selves.


Is it our fear of becoming useless and a burden that causes us to avoid and deny our natural destiny? Is it whole industries built around looking "young forever" that have caused us to shun aging as distasteful and unappealing? Obviously there’s no clear-cut answer. But as with any stigmatized segments of our society, there are always those individuals who go against the tide and see themselves for what they have become. These are people who are comfortable within — who have attained the seasoned dignity and grace that only older age can impart. These are the people that I sought out for this book. Many I met by chance. Faces full of character and insight caught my attention. Some are folks recommended to me by people who, when they learned of this project, excitedly encouraged me to visit the one, two, and sometimes more older people whom they revered and admired.


Never has a project given me back so much personally. Inside the gray, silver, and white heads I have photographed, I found so much wisdom. Some of these elders know the value of what their minds have distilled from years of living; a few do not. "I am a divine work in progress," Rhoda Harris told me. Mrs. Harris is an 88-year-old entrepreneur, whose packets of affirmation cards she calls "Rhoda’s Wisdom in a Pouch," demonstrate a woman who understands the wisdom she possesses. All of us are divine works in progress. We are never static. We grow, we change, we feel, we experience, and sometimes we evolve, but always we are progressing from who we were to who we are becoming.


As with any stage in life, there are drawbacks to aging. Perhaps my great uncle said it best decades earlier when I was an eight-year-old bundle of energy and he was a white-haired seventy-something: "If only I could have his energy with my wisdom," I overheard him tell his older brother.


Aging I have discovered is learning how to embrace new things. For some that means surfing on computers and being around today’s youth; for others it is focussing on a mature talent or perhaps developing a latent ability, accepting a new direction, or concentrating on family and relationships.


Learning for me was a big part of this project. Listening to folks talk from experience. Trying to distill our conversations to one or two sentences to suggest each personality and a little of that person’s vast store of knowledge was one of the hardest tasks in preparing this book. Over the course of the project, I like to think I may have given something back, too. When I first showed 73-year-old Ruth George the portrait of her I planned to run in this book, she wasn’t pleased. Seeing her again a week or so later, she confessed. "At first I didn’t like the picture," she told me, "but as I studied it, I said that’s me. I don’t see myself as you saw me. I think of myself as 40, I don’t think of myself as 73. I remember myself, how I looked and sounded, and how I acted when I was 40. I look in the mirror, but I didn’t see a 73-year-old face until you gave me that picture. That’s the real me as I am today. And I’m beginning to appreciate what you saw in me."


We all need a "real" mirror now and then. I hope this book will encourage society to face itself. We need to stop ignoring or denigrating the first sprouting of puff around our eyes, the deepening of wrinkles, and sagging muscles. We need to embrace them as natural and see the beauty of the person within and accept this elder stage in our lives and glory in the strengths of the mind and character gained from years of living. Those, who have, wear the signs of character on beautiful mature faces.


Perhaps many of us already see this beauty, but only, outside of ourselves, in others. Who hasn’t noticed dignified white hair, a beautifully creased face, or strong gnarled hands that demand respect? But what about on ourselves — in each of us? We are all divine works in progress.


Years ago when I was still in my 30s, an older relative told me: "In my twenties, I was clueless as to who I was. In my thirties, I began to understand who I was, but I didn’t like myself. In my forties, I accepted myself. In my fifties, I began to celebrate myself. In my sixties, I have blossomed. It can only get better."


I think I can safely say that for the people whose portraits appear in this book, life has gotten "better." Not necessarily easier and definitely not without heartache, but they have told me over and over that they know they can face whatever comes their way. And why not? They have decades of experience, wisdom, and accumulated emotional resources to sustain them.

Chester Higgins Jr., does with his camera what Aretha Franklin does with a song, what Max Roach does with drums, what Toni Morrison does with words, what Spike Lee does with film. This self-described "cultural anthropologist with a camera" grabs your attention because his material is vaguely familiar but also different, unexpected, riveting. Once he has your attention, Mr. Higgins provides entree into a place that is often off limits to those who do not belong, the private world of African Americans at play or in prayer, in triumph or in tragedy. Black, as refracted through Mr. Higgins's lens, is much more than a color. Documenting the enormous diversity among African Americans is rarely acknowledged in the mass media, is the raison d'être of much of his work.

It is perhaps in their expression of faith that African Americans are most diverse: they are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, as well as adherents of African religions perhaps more ancient. To the uninitiated—to those, that is, who have not been exposed to Mr. Higgins's work—all blacks are Baptists and praise God through gospel music. His photo essay "Invoking the Spirit: Worship traditions in the African World, on exhibition at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, (October 2, 1994-January 16, 1995).shows otherwise worshipers in New York Tap Ancestral Roots" . These photographs were taken over a five-year period. From more than 2,000 images on more than 600 rolls of film, something truly African within them. That is true of the Pentecostal Christians who were born into the faith as it is of the more recent converts to the African faiths of long—forgotten ancestors.

To understand the magnitude of the assignment Mr. Higgins gave himself, one must know that it is in religious worship that African Americans have traditionally had their greatest freedom from the oppressive world at large, and thus guard the sanctity of their worship from intruders. They are especially suspicious of anyone who shows up with a camera. Time and again Mr. Higgins persuaded the leader of a flock to give him a hearing, then persuaded that leader to support his project. But even that did not mean he could begin taking pictures: he still had to persuade the worshipers to let him photograph their services.

I'm spiritual, not religious," says Mr. Higgins, who was a Baptist preacher from the age of 9 until undergraduate days at Tuskegee University. "To me the Spirit creates humans. Humans then create religions. Religions then create walls. I don't want to be walled in; I don't want to be walled out from what is created by the spirit."

Perhaps that is what his subjects—whether in Brooklyn or in the Gullah country of South Carolina, in Puerto Rico or in Senegal—sense when he approaches them. "What we're connected by is a spiritual experience," he says.

That comes through in this photo essay on New Yorkers, where one can sense commonality among the different, as between the Orisha summoning the soul by blowing conch shells and the rabbi blowing the shofar on a Hebrew holy day; or the quiet strength of the Nubian priestess and the Apostolic parishioner.

Throughout his career, Mr. Higgins has been "feeling the spirit" of the peoples of the African Diaspora and inviting-indeed, challenging—those who view his photographs to do so too. Certainly he takes people who are not black into a world they never knew existed; but perhaps more important, he takes black people there too, reconnecting them to a past they never knew or never knew well. Pride, hope and dignity leap out from Mr. Higgins's photographs, not the pain, pathos and pessimism that often dominate other documentaries of the black experience.

This photo essay is part of a larger project that has occupied Mr. Higgins throughout his 30 year career: the creation of what he describes as a "photographic encyclopedia of the life and times of people of African descent." He has used vacation time and his own money to hopscotch the globe, spending 8—12 weeks a year on both sides of the Atlantic in search of the African heritage. In this journey he has photographed burial ceremonies in West Africa and the 18th-century African Burial Ground in Manhattan; the portals through which Africans were led on their way to board slave ships and the old market in which they were sold in Charleston, S.C. This year alone he plans to visit West Africa, Western Europe, South America and the Caribbean.

Fortunately for those who cannot make the actual journey with him, Mr. Higgins has given us the next best thing.

 

Reviews:

 

The Dothan Eagle
Dothan, Alabama


Friday, January 14, 2005


By DeVon A. Applewhite
Eagle Staff Writer


Esteemed New York Times photojournalist Chester Higgins Jr. is in the midst of celebrating 30 years with the newspaper and has received nods of approval for his latest writing project.


The New Brockton native's book, "Echo of the Spirit," released in October, is garnering attention not only for its collection of 70 black and white photos "celebrating the African Diaspora," but Higgins' warm and elegantly written prose in the form of essays captivates readers in much the same way as his masterful photography.
Starting with page one, where Higgins shares of his rural Coffee County upbringing and his preacher grandfather's (the Rev. Warren Smith) spiritual influence, he weaves a tapestry of rich storytelling.


From his grandfather's mentoring, Higgins was persuaded to enter the ministry, forsaking the image of "naughty kid to being a serious holy man who preached at different churches and recruited members into the Southern Baptist Church. My peers became wary of me, while adults sought my blessing," Higgins wrote.


On the opposite page, accompanying the narrative, Higgins' photograph of his great-aunt Shugg Lampley praying over one of her handmade quilts at the foot of her bed before bedtime offers a glimpse into the private world of the relatives who had a hand in shaping and molding Higgins. There are also images and memories of Higgins' favorite uncle, March Forth, who died at the age of 107.


Those are a couple of relatives who served as practice subjects so Higgins could perfect his style and create hundreds of memorable photographs used to document the lives and history of people of African-American and African descent. Intrigued by the energy of the civil rights movement, Higgins set out to portray blacks in a positive light during the era of social change.


In the book's text, Higgins described the Jim Crow-era South he was reared in this way: "We lived on the edge. Growing from childhood to young adulthood as an African-American in the state of Alabama had its moments of joy and times of terror."


Higgins details a riveting chain of events set in motion by a relative's bravado toward a white New Brockton policemen. While Higgins writes about the ugliness of segregation, he also displays candid snapshots of everyday life that at the time served to humanize his subjects.


Using his camera lens to tell a story and provoke thought, Higgins accomplishes that mission time and time again, especially when he photographed Jim Crow protest rallies organized by African-American students on historically black colleges to conveying African-Americans' affinity toward Dr. Martin Luther King, as evidenced by a photograph of an elderly man, sitting in a black congregation in New Brockton, holding a fan with a portrait of the slain civil rights leader.


There was a time when Higgins lacked enthusiasm for his art form and sought a mentor who assisted him in discovering his true passion: capturing the African-American experience. After more than a dozen working trips to Africa, Higgins realized there was a "search for African" identity.

From his crisis of confidence came growth and a desire to document the stories of black Americans to the culture of African tribes from Sudan to Senegal and Ethiopia. It led to his fourth book, "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa."


Eagle Staff Writer DeVon A. Applewhite can be reached at dapplewhite@dothaneagle.com or 712-7956.

 

Divine Works in Progress: The Elder Grace of Chester Higgins JR.

By Judith Keller

Photographer Chester Higgins Jr. eloquently titles his new book Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging (Boston: Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown, 2000; hardcover, 128 pages; $40). This handsome volume includes sparkling photographs of 80 mostly ordinary elders, along with their extraordinary thoughts on aging. Higgins' use of lighting creates a tactile, sensual feeling to the images. Readers will want to hold the book close and embrace these "divine works in progress."

In her foreword, Maya Angelou writes of the portraits, "Their resolute faces attest to the mountains climbed and the rivers forged. The somberness of their eyes is evidence of . . . demons . . . faced down . . . and despair . . . overcome. And then there are those smiles. Hallelujah for those smiles. They tantalize, 'Don't you wish you knew what I know' and 'I've been there and did that before you ever knew there existed.' The smiles assure, 'Continue. Continue. You will work it out.' The smiles reassure, 'Life is worth the living of it. Do it with your whole heart.'"

Higgins writes in his epilogue, "Most of us have a fear of the natural process of growing old. None of us knows how we will fare, what loved ones will be with us, or who will leave us behind. In spite of all this, some of us miraculously blossom, seasoned by years of living. . . . These are the people, like the elders I grew up among, who have a saying, a thought, a wish or advice for all who take time to listen."

The portraits express Higgins' conviction "that aging should not be regarded as an affliction. It is a stage of life, like all others, that deserves to be celebrated and documented in all its natural grace and beauty."This is not a Pollyanna version of aging, though. Drawbacks are acknowledged and difficulties are expressed in both the inner portraits and the inspired text. Elizabeth P. Jones, a domestic worker and singer who is photographed in the book, states, "Trouble never looks sweet, but what comes out of it can be unexpectedly sweet." Anthony Perkins, a construction worker, advises, "Write your problems down, then look at the list a year from now, and see how time has changed them."

The subjects are older and African American, yet this book speaks not only to us white-haired folks but to all young and old of every origin. Respect for the wisdom of elders is a legacy of black culture. Higgins recalls, "I first picked up a camera in 1967 to photograph two older relatives, my great uncle March Forth McGowan, the man to whom I dedicate Elder Grace, and his sister, my great aunt Shugg Lampley. Raised in the culture of a small town of 600 people in southeast Alabama, I was taught to respect older people."

Miriam B. Francis, a subject in Elder Grace, seconds the thought, observing, "If we do not honor our ancestors, there will be no one to honor us."

Elder Grace encourages us not to remove our creases, bags and sags and color our gray hair, but rather to respect our maturity. These portraits of everyday men and women reflect their accumulated wisdom. When asked, "How do you photograph wisdom?" Higgins said, "Like a work of art. Aging gracefully becomes a work of art." Among these everyday works of art are homemakers, historians, artists, domestic workers, musicians, seamstresses, teachers, factory workers, civil servants, lawyers, nurses, writers and chauffeurs.

"Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging" also is a traveling exhibition that recently opened its initial run (through March 4) at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. There I saw a young white woman cry as she lamented her loss during the many years she did not contact her grandmother. Two Asian photography students were studying how Higgins lit his subjects. An African American man in middle age was writing down the comments mounted with the photographs that resonated with him. Standing there surrounded by the lustrous, larger-than-life photographs, I, a 75-year-old, white-haired white woman, felt securely embraced by the wisdom, grace and nobility of my peers.

 

Judith Keller is an award-winning film and video maker. She heads Tricepts Productions in New York City. Visit Keller's website at www.keller.com/tricepts.

 

ASIAN ART NEWS - Volume 11, Number 2

March/April 2001

 

Chester Higgins Jr., at the New-York Historical Society

In Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging, photographer Chester Higgins Jr. has recorded the life and times of people of African descent in an effort to combat stigmatized images that neglect to show decency, dignity, and character.

Higgins has been a photojournalist for The New York Times for the past three decades. He is the author of four books of photography on African-American themes, including Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging is available in book format. This project has given Higgins the ability to continue to honor people older than himself, and he has reclaimed images of people from his childhood who have long since "transited." For Higgins, "transited" is a positive term that accurately reflects his spiritual beliefs about death.

The majority of the elders in this project are everyday people: only eight are well known, 76 are New Yorkers including Maria Ortiz, a seamstress, Emelda C. Mills, a hospital secretary, La Roi Mills, a plant manager, and Anthony Perkins, a construction worker.

The process of aging can translate into a mysterious reservoir of wisdom. Higgins looks at 80 thriving African-American men and women who have found beauty within themselves, and are experiencing aging with energy, wit, and grace. Alongside each portrait are comments from the subjects that express a collective wisdom of life and aging.

Higgins has managed to capture the spirit and attitude of all his subjects. The reflective expression of an historian is as revealing as the shrewd face of an attorney. The school teacher with a benign smile engages the viewer, and the questioning expression of political activist Freida Burgee insinuates a deep understanding. The large wholesome smile of school teacher Gloria Hunter and the quiet smile of chauffeur Alfred David Holmes tell different stories.

Higgins’s faces reveal an individual’s character and emotional history, forming an historical text. The lines and wrinkles tell the story of a person’s life experience as eloquently and fully as a narrative in a book. In this project Higgins uses a dark backdrop to accentuate his subjects’ white hair. Lighting enhances the sculptural effect of their faces.

Higgins has captured the spiritual quality of his subjects. A serene wisdom emanates from these faces, endorsed by individual comments. "Art is like talking, but to yourself," says painter Ernest Crichlow. "Everyone is part of a spiritual strength. All of us have the power to have a realistic spiritual force and the ability to call upon it," says United States Postal Service employee Zedfrederick Alston Sr.

These photographs have a universal appeal and the viewer can identify with some of the faces that may resemble people they have met. There is a commonality in the expression of all human beings that is not peculiar to any particular race or community. "I am a divine work in progress," says Rhoda Harris, an 87-year-old entrepreneur, summing up the focus of the exhibition.

Indeed, all of us are a divine work in progress. We are always growing, learning, and evolving. Every new experience adds to our understanding. By interacting with each other, we are able to widen our horizons and understand another point of view.

Uma Prakash

 

 

Chester Higgins Jr. Amazing 'Grace'
There's much to learn from the noble faces in portraits by Chester Higgins Jr.

Wednesday, June 6, 2001
Ryan Trares
Dispatch Staff Reporter

 

Images of youth permeate every aspect of modern culture.

From television and movies to storefront windows, the world seems to revolve around the young and the beautiful.

With his latest project, photographer Chester Higgins Jr. presents an alternative.

His exhibition, "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging," opens Thursday at the King Arts Complex, 867 Mount Vernon Ave. It showcases 80 portraits of senior citizens. The portraits also were published in the book of the same name.
"I wanted to offer a way to embrace our natural development and to see images that can help us realize that there can be value in living long into time," said Higgins, a staff photographer for The New York Times.
The idea for his book came in 1967 in southern Alabama, when, at 20, Higgins first asked to photograph his great-uncle and great-aunt.

"Raised in a small town of 600 people in southeast Alabama, I was taught to respect older people. I have always been fascinated with older people whose bearings are full of dignity," he said.
"In my daily life, I began seeking out people over 70 with white hair who looked to have aged gracefully."

Throughout his career, Higgins, now 54, has accumulated portraits of the elderly, people who he felt challenged the common notion of aging. He would engage his subjects, after finding people who had "dignity and character and a strong countenance."

"I told them that I didn't like how aging is portrayed in our society. It was too negative, too marginalized. . . . I wanted to change that or present a positive message in photographs that would cause people to review those negative feelings. I told them that I thought that a picture of them in this book project could be of great help."

Although some of his subjects were apprehensive at first, most agreed to sit and have their portraits taken.

The subjects could decide the particulars: where they wanted to be photographed and what they wanted to wear. Higgins' only request was that they wear dark clothing in order to accentuate their white hair.

After shooting the portraits, Higgins and his wife, Betsy Kissam, got to know the people behind the pictures. Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging is a collection of photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. (Bullfinch Press, $40).
* "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging" will be on view Thursday through Sept. 8 in the King Arts Complex, 867 Mount Vernon Ave. An opening reception will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Gallery hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Admission is free; however, the center will ask for donations in the gallery. For more information, call 614-645-5464.

"Each person had something special to offer about what he or she found to be an essential understanding about life," Higgins said. "I listened. I asked questions about them. I asked questions about their life. And I ate a lot of pound cake."
The book was released last October, and an exhibition of the portraits was featured at the New York Historical Society. The show in Columbus will be the second stop for the exhibition.

"Elder Grace" will not be the first time the King Arts Complex has featured Higgins' work. In 1998, the center presented "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa," a study of African people worldwide.
"He made such an impact in this community last time, we felt it was appropriate to bring him back," said Betty Stull, cultural arts director at the King Arts Complex.

"I told Betty Stull about the project, and when the book was finished, I sent her a copy of it, and she loved it," Higgins said.
At Thursday's opening reception, Higgins will speak about his project. One hundred senior citizens will preview the exhibit Thursday morning at an event featuring Higgins and his two Columbus subjects -- Leonard Nelson Napper Sr. and Jolene Finnell.

Napper, who attended the show's New York opening, has high expectations for Columbus.

"I was amazed at the turnout," the Columbus native said. "I hope people here will come in the same way to realize that many older people still make contributions to the community."

Catherine Willis, a founder of Friends of Art for Community Enrichment, which has helped sponsor events for the exhibit, stressed the exhibit's significance.


"It gives us the chance to honor the wisdom and the beauty of these people," Willis said. "We want young people to take time to read and think about the information these elderly people try to impart."
She said that eighth-grade students from Champion Middle School will serve as hosts and hostesses for the Thursday morning senior citizens' event"This will give the children the chance to interact with these extraordinary seniors," Willis said.

"I would like to see more intergenerational opportunities that would benefit the youngest and the oldest at the same time," Higgins said.

"We can benefit so much once we discover the value of aging and learn how to recycle the best of our elder experiences back into our younger lives to reinvigorate us all."
Besides simply honoring the process of aging, Higgins said, life lessons can be learned.

"We need to listen because their words can reassure us, console us about the road we have yet to travel," he said. "It is a good possibility that we younger people are facing issues right now and in need of some light, some advice, something learned by someone who has been at the same juncture before."

rtrares@dispatch.com
Copyright © 2001, The Columbus Dispatch

Chester Higgins Jr. photos
Jolene Finnell, 76, of Columbus
Columbus resident Leonard Nelson Napper Sr., 83

 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
May 20, 2003


Take Five Archive:


Chester Higgins Jr. Takes Five
Picture this: People aging with grace

Their faces are strong, vibrant, beautiful and full of wisdom. The photographs are the work of Chester Higgins Jr., whose exhibit "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging" is a celebration of wisdom and experience. Higgins has published a book by the same title. The New York Times photographer honors growing older through his black-and-white, larger-than-life images that will be on display at America's Black Holocaust Museum, 2233 N. 4th St. The exhibit opens Wednesday. Higgins spoke from New York with urban affairs reporter Felicia Thomas-Lynn.

By Felicia Thomas-Lynn

Q. What's the inspiration behind the book and exhibit?.
A. My great-uncle and my great-aunt. I grew up in a small town of about 600 people in Alabama. I call it a little village. In that culture, you learned to revere your elders. Aunt "Shugg" was a midwife, and she lived to be 97. Her brother was a carpenter and mason who lived to be 108. My fondest memory of being a child was being around these two people. I really bonded with them. I decided I wanted to have a picture of them. I saw in them wonderful examples of human beings; they made growing older (seem) so full of wisdom and regal.

Q. How did you go about selecting people to be photographed?
A. I had certain criteria. They had to have white hair. They had to be over 70. They had to have a countenance of dignity, and their eyes had to be connected to their minds.

Q. Each photograph in the exhibit seems to have its own spirit. How'd you accomplish that?
A. When I photograph people, I try to capture the signature of their spirit. I start with what they look like, but I'm after what's inside. There is an echo that makes up a person. When you are younger, it's high pitch and shallow water, and as you gain experience and age, your echo deepens. We are all elements of the spirit. That spirit is the house we live inside of. Birth isn't important, neither is death; what is important is in between.

Q. What do you hope people will take away from the exhibit?
A. Ultimately, I hope that people will see that aging gracefully can become a work of art and that it will help take away the negative fear we have about aging. The ultimate success is if someone, a younger or a middle-age person, can go to the exhibit and find a model they want to look like. That's the success of the exhibit and the book.

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES Arts and Leisure section

Sunday, February 25, 2001

Through The Camera, A Closer Look at Age

In a culture that sees aging as a problem, photographers are capturing its possibilities.

By LYLE REXER

 

Commuters hurrying through the subway station at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue are confronted by images of where they are headedónot uptown or downtown but a biological destination, old age. The portraits publicize ìElder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,î an exhibition of photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. at the New-York Historical Society through next Sunday. It is at once a celebration of aging and a cautionary lesson. These handsome, dignified, larger-than-life images of senior citizens proclaim, in Mr. Higginsís words, ìThis is what life can be like for those who live it wisely and well.î

In a culture bombarded with images of youth, maturity never looked so good. And just as people are stopping on their journeys to consider Mr. Higginsís mural and moral, a growing number of artists are attempting to capture, if not the wisdom of age, the complicated and ambivalent sentiments it inspires.

The surprise is not that white hair and crowís feet are beginning to show, but that they have been disguised with cultural hair dye and covered with art-world wrinkle cream. America has a graying population, with a demographic profile that turns advertisersí ideal age pyramid upside down. Yet images of maturity appear mostly at the margins, in ads for retirement accounts and embarrassing health-care products. Age is not a place where people want to linger or a time they want to celebrate.

Age is a problem, ìa train wreck,î as Charles DeGaulle put it. And this has everything to do with how contemporary artists are representing it.

For Mr. Higgins, a New York Times photographer who grew up in the small town of New Brockton, Ala., age was a source of inspiration, not dread, and he wants to create positive emblems for it. ìI spent a lot of time with my elders, just listening,î he says. ìThey call it ëhaving an old soul.í They wanted my energy. I wanted their wisdom. The first picture I ever took was of my great aunt.î

In his book ìElder Graceî (Bulfinch Press), Mr. Higgins has assembled a gallery of the beautiful, the pensive and the noble, ages 55 to 99, lighting his subjects to emphasize the drama of their physical transformation. White hair glows in these pictures. His wife, Betsy Kissam, interviewed Mr. Higginsís subjects and selected a quotation for each, capturing the fortitude of their thought, which the images only suggest.

Michal Ronnen Safdie has sought an even more extreme end of the age spectrum. The wife of the architect Moshe Safdie, she was photographing in Israel in 1997 when it struck her how differently people ëwearí their age. Like Mr. Higgins, Ms Safdie viewed the bearing of old age as an expression of how lives were lived. She set out on a round-the-world quest to photograph and interview people more than 100 years old. She has a growing archive of human endurance, from Paula Lindberg Salomon, the step-mother of Charlotte Salomon, the artist who died at 26 at Auschwitz, to Shanti Devi, a woman on the streets of India. ìThey have lived our century, end to end,î she says. ìThey are living vignettes of our history.î Another of Ms Safdieís projects will be on view at Salander-OíReilly Galleries starting on May 31.

If age furnished Mr. Higgins and Ms. Safdie a subject for their art, in the case of Dutch photographer Jan Van Leeuwen, it also made art possible. Mr. Van Leeuwen, whose first major New York exhibition was recently mounted at Gallery 24 in Chelsea, began to take pictures so that he would have a hobby after he retired from distributing kitchenware. He creates tableaus in which his own unclothed body, often in multiple exposure, acts the parts of religious scenes. These include his version of the Last Supper at Emmaus. Using the simple, one-color processes of cynanotype (the common blueprint) and Van Dyke print (brown), Mr. Van Leeuwen makes of his bald and aging form a symbol of sacramental humility and the acceptance of human frailty, moral and physical. A non-Jew, he grew up in Amsterdam during the Holocaust, and with age has come an urgent desire to make images that transcend the horror and fear he cannot forget.

In Mr. Van Leeuwenís work, the bodyís decline corresponds to a spiritual and psychological victory. This is akin to that which Chuck Close found recently when he began to make daguerreotypes of unclothed friends and artists, some of whom, like him, were in their 60ís. People were fascinated by these unflattering, if not forgiving, portraits, and Mr. Close received many requests from people of all ages to pose. ìItís ironic,î he said in a recent interview, ìin the 60ís, I couldnít get anyone to take their clothes off. Now people seem ready to say, ëThis is who I am and what has happened to me,í and they are comfortable with the fact that their bodies donít conform to social norms of physical beauty.î

Mr. Higgins never asked his subjects to disrobe, although he wasnít shy about chasing down anyone on the street who looked interesting and might have a story to tell. He wasnít always rewarded or welcomed. One woman whose mane of white hair attracted him from a distance turned out to be younger than he was. Others were openly skeptical. ìI learned very early on that these people couldnít care less about being photographed,î he says. ìFor them every moment was important, and they let me know that they did not appreciate having their time wasted.î His subjectsí sense of timeís value may account for the gravity and confidence of their self-presentation, two qualities rarely seen in contemporary photographic portraits.

These examples notwithstanding, age remains a subject that provokes artistic unease. This has been the case at least since the time of Rembrandt. His late self-portraits are profoundly moving in part because they express full awareness of the consequence of modern individuality. The Renaissance gave birth to the notion of the secular individual, and the Dutch golden age enshrined it in middle-class luxury. Rembrandt recognized that individuality came at a price. In spite of human power and wealth, not to mention creativity, we confront age and death alone, without the comfort of mythology or the promise of eternity. By the time of Blake and Wordsworth, Father Time was replaced by innocent infants ìtrailing clouds of glory,î as Wordsworth put it in ìOde, Intimations of Immortality.î After childhood, itís all downhill, and the physical evidence can be found in art from Picassoís late etchings to Richard Avedonís photographs of his dying father to the late work of Leon Golub, whose retrospective will begin at the Brooklyn Museum in May.

The notion that age is something to be superseded or at best endured has become so ingrained that we scarcely notice it lurking behind such positive concepts as ìinnovationî and îoriginality.î In this climate, younger artists have discovered age to be as handy a means to shock as religion was in the 1950ís or sex in the 1960ís. Andreas Serrano, who seems to find societyís pressure points with shiatsu accuracy, reverses all the assumptions about age-appropiate sexuality and gender roles in ìThe History of Sex: Antonio and Ulricke,î a photograph in which an old man looks pleadingly up at the breasts of a naked woman who seems to be gazing fiercely toward the future.

Erwin Olaf takes the idea of age reversal several steps further, or perhaps backwards, in his exhibition ìmature,î now at the Laurence Miller Gallery in midtown Manhattan. Mr. Olaf photographs older women in the poses of soft-core pinups and titles them with the names of supermodels like Christy T. (Turlington) and Cindy C. (Crawford). His stated intention is to question stereotypical ideas about age and female sexuality, but the images just as readily reinforce a prejudice that sex is the prerogative of youth, and passion in maturity is monstrous. Such reverse prudery may be the deepest generation gap ever.

Not for Mr. Higgins. His portraits are calculated to appeal. And where most subway images sell products, he sells time. By lavishing attention on his subjects and by seeking to apprehend what he calls their ìshine,î or inner light, he captures qualities that continue to make them physically attractive into late age: humor, elegance and dignity. He sums these up in the single word ìgrace.î Itís unabashedly romantic propaganda that seeks to overturn stereotypes not through parody but through affection. ìI want people to see my pictures and ask, ëHow can I look like that when I get to be that age?î he says. ìYou canít deny the next day, so accept it, embrace it. God gives us age, but we have to make the decisions about how to use it.î

 

FACES OF EXPERIENCE

ìElder Graceí graces the Historical Society

by Jesse Witkin Schwartz

 

Renowned New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr., offers the world a disarming and important service with his new installation of photographs: ìElder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,î showing now through March 4 at the New-York Historical Society.

The exhibit is both dignified and accessible, perhaps, even appearing oversimplified at first glanceólarge black-and-white portraits of elderly African-Americans taken over the last 10 years, with small explanations beneath each print detailing name, birth date and lifeís occupation. The intent behind these images is more introspective: not as easily interpreted. It is immediately clear that, despite the shared racial heritage of all the photoís subjects, this work is a meditation on age, not race. And we quickly surmise that it is societyís stereotypical and oftentimes degrading preconceptions of the elderly, black and white, that is the appropriate and well-targeted nerve center of Higginsí photography.

Higgins chronicles a group of individuals rather than inaccurately generalizing a group of people. Upon entering the gallery, we are borne across a current of aged faces, smiling couples and romances as old as a half-century, browns of furrowed memories, eyes that glow with uncertainty, satisfaction, regret. Higginsí photos reveal that these people are not simply carbon copies of the same demographic group; rather, they are singular entities who happen to be connected by a common age.

The photographer does allow for a small thread of similarity between the subjects of his portraits. By choosing them from a varied range of pasts and backgrounds, the artist provides us with the tender understanding that, whether chauffeur or senator, the journey towards twilight is fraught with similar difficulties and successes. Reaching this point of life can only be achieved through direct experience, and it is this that Higgins stressesóthe importance of ìliving throughî rather than simply ìlearning of.î

Higgins and the New-York Historical Society are offering a reinvention of our perceptions about those advanced in age. The exhibit is accompanied by a calendar of pertinent lectures given by distinguished speakers at the society and a book, ìElder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,î with a foreword by Maya Angelou. If the images donít move you, Eleanor Rooseveltís famous words will help you understand: ìBeautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.î

 

 

The Birmingham News
Arts
November 2001


Arts Notebook
‘Elder Grace’ on show at Civil Rights Institute

By Michael Huebner
News Staff writer
Aging subject of exhibit

Sixty larger-than-life photographs from Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging, a book by Alabama native Chester Higgins Jr., are being displayed in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In his youth and in three decades as a New York Times photojournalist, Higgins studied faces, and was profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.


Inspired by a desire to mix politics with art, he eventually found a national audience. His book captures the faces of older African Americans with dignity and respect.
In the foreword, poet Maya Angelou wrote of Higgins’ subjects, "their resolute faces attest to the mountains climbed and the rivers forged." The exhibit runs through December 30. Call 328.9696 for more information.

 

THE JOURNAL NEWS
Saturday, September 1, 2001
Communities Section


YONKERS
Exhibit spotlights active senior citizens
Photos at Yonkers bank branch defy stereotype of elderly

Bill Hughes
The Journal News

A photo exhibit by nationally renowned artist Chester Higgins Jr., will open today at the Fleet Bank branch at the Cross County Shopping Center. The exhibit is entitled "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging," and it features portraits of people over the age of 69 whose vitality defies the stereotype of the elderly as frail and weak.


Higgins, a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1975, selected the images in the exhibit from a series of photos he took for his most recent book, also entitled "Elder Grace," which was published late last year.
"I wanted to show that aging need not be something we fear," Higgins said. "That age and the experience that comes with it are their own rewards. I began seeking out the mothers and fathers and grandparents of us, the baby boomers. I believe we can find examples in their behavior that are useful to our generation."


The exhibit is being sponsored by the bank and the Council for Senior Centers & Services, a non-profit agency dedicated to advocating for senior citizens. Igal Jellinek, the council’s executive director, said the exhibit is part of a continuing effort to change people’s perception of aging and the elderly.


"The show presents images of elderly people who are strong, vibrant and beautiful to look at," Jellinek said. "The whole goal is to change people’s perception of aging and to make New York a more elder-friendly environment."
Higgins said he chose his subjects randomly, sometimes stopping people on the street because he liked the way they looked and asking them if they would pose for him. He gravitated toward people with white hair, strong features and lively eyes and shot the photographs with black and white film.


"As in all my photographs, I searched for the signature of the spirit in the portraits," Higgins said. "None of us knows how we will fare or what we will leave behind. In spite of this, some of us miraculously blossom, seasoned by years of living. These are faces that shine, etched and honed by life in all its complexity."


Richard McKeon, community relations manager at Fleet, said the bank has committed funding to sponsor art exhibits throughout its regional branches. "We are so inspired by the positive message of Mr. Higgins’ work that we wanted to spread that message throughout the New York metropolitan region," McKeon said. "He has helped us all to see the graceful resources we have in our elderly population."


The exhibit will be on view through September. A wine and cheese reception is planned for 5p.m. on Sept 20.
For more information, call Dan Rigney at the Council for Senior Centers at 212/398.6565, Ext 221.

 

The Telegraph, Macon, Georgia
Friday, August 16, 2002

Out & About, the weekend section
Tubman exhibit honors ‘The Nobility of Aging’
For the ages: Tubman exhibit shows beauty, subtleties of growing old.

By Mike George

A new exhibition of photography at the Tubman African American Museum is exploring the beauty of aging.


The exhibit, titled "Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging," features the work of New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr., who has worked on the project for nearly a decade.


The Tubman will be hosting a "hat and glove" tea Sunday afternoon from 4-6 p.m. During the reception, Higgins will speak about the exhibition and his inspiration for taking on the project.


The exhibit features 60 photographs of African-American men and women ages 69 to 98. For Assistant Director Anita Ponder, who helped bring the exhibition to Macon, Higgins’ work centers on breaking stereotypes.
"I think it’s human nature to fear growing old," she said. "This exhibit shows that growing old can be beautiful and graceful.


Ponder jumped at the opportunity to bring the exhibition to Macon. It will travel to museums across the country until October 2004, and it has already been showcased at the New York Historical Society in New York City.
"When you have the opportunity to bring photography of this calibre to Macon, you can’t pass it up," Ponder said.


Higgins began his career in photojournalism at Tuskegee University in Alabama before starting work as a staff photographer for the New York Times in 1975.
Ponder said one of the exhibit’s draws is its ability to show the subtle beauty of the human form.


"It’s not only the quality of the photography," she said, "but his ability to capture the little details that make each person he photographed special.

Ongoing
What: Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging
When: August 15 – September 19
Where: Tubman African American Museum
340 Walnut Street
Cost: $3 adults, $2 children under 12
Phone: 478.743.8544
Page 12. www.macon.com

 

Schwäbisches Tageblatt, June 17, 2006
In Praise of Aging

Black and white portraits by the New York based photographer Chester Higgins at d.a.i


TÜBINGEN. Chester Higgins’ dark-grounded, pin sharp black and white portraits: one can see them as a declaration of love for old age. Forty-three of these exceptional images of old and very old people from drastically different professions and spheres of life, created by a photographer who has worked for the New York Times since 1973, are currently exhibited at Tübingen’s Deutsch-Amerikanische Institut (d.a.i.). These images’ extraordinary expressiveness makes the viewer involuntarily stop and focus.

The cultural historian Prof. Hermann Bausinger who introduced the show at a well-attended opening on Thursday evening commented on the photographer’s keen observation, which captures the process of aging as an "awareness of the body which is not defined by deficit." It’s not only in their dark tones that these photographs appear so different from the ones currently on show at the Kunsthalle Tübingen. That show’s series of brightly accented images shows elderly people in Coney Island, seeking in their brittle lust for life to touch up their whole existence with their faces.(1)


In Chester Higgins’ work however the faces express the future, "the openness for something new" says Bausinger. There is no visual hormone injection and no distancing from aging, no competing for the favors of the younger generation, but rather a peaceful self-assuredness. At the same time, the photographer succeeds in establishing a profound sensual closeness. "One has the feeling that one could to touch these faces." Bausing points out that it is not easy to translate the series’ title "Elder Grace" into German, and "Anmut" (the German word for grace) was too rarely used in German. In Chester Higgins’ portraits, concludes Bausinger, "charm and grace don’t get overpowered by dignity."


Higgins was born into a strict and devout African American family. Deeply influenced by the experience of racial discrimination that still exists today, he also grew up in a cultural context in which respect for the elderly was unquestioned. Early on, says Bausinger, Higgins shared photo pioneer Edward Steichen’s aim "to explain humans to humans" – in the sense of a globalization without violence and without power hierarchies.

Image: Faden. Info: The exhibition is open until August 4, and then again from September 19 to 29 at the Deutsch-Amerikanische Institut, Karlstrasse 3; Tue-Fr 9am-6pm

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(1) He refers to an exhibition of the Austrian photographer Peter Granser at the Kunsthalle in Tübingen between April and June 2006: http://www.kunsthalle-tuebingen.de/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=100&Itemid=0&catid=73

 

 
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