Elder Grace by Chester Higgins Jr.
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.
The Dothan Eagle
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."
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
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.
Higginss faces reveal an individuals character and emotional history, forming an historical text. The lines and wrinkles tell the story of a persons 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.
Chester Higgins Jr. Amazing 'Grace'
Wednesday, June 6, 2001
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.
"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.
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,
"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."
"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.
"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.
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.
"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."
"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."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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?.
Q. How did you go about selecting people to be photographed?
Q. Each photograph in the exhibit seems to have its own spirit. How'd
you accomplish that?
Q. What do you hope people will take away from the exhibit?
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
By Michael Huebner
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.
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.
The Telegraph, Macon, Georgia
Out & About, the weekend section
By Mike George
A new exhibition of photography at the Tubman African American Museum is exploring the beauty of aging.
Schwäbisches Tageblatt, June 17, 2006
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)
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
(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