Sunday Book Review
Los Angeles Times

From Image to Icon
Thirty years of pursuing the African Diaspora

December 11, 1994

By Richard Eder



A back-lit profile of the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, head inclined slightly. The unadorned upward sweep of a heavy white veil and two globe-like dark eyes glistening above it: a young Black Muslim woman in New York. The silhouette of another woman in the sunlit doorway of a pitch-black room and beyond the opening, the ocean: the Senegalese dungeon's "Door of No Return" through which Africans were forced onto the slave ships.

Among other things, photographs can be icons, emitting a power that their subjects don't materially possess. Like icons, though, such photographs are not invented talismans. They allow the subjects to symbolize as well as represent themselves, as if light—the one arbitrary element that photography brings to the reality it depicts—did not simply fall upon a person, a tree or a house but welled up from inside them. A photographer's light can make the body the same shape as the soul.

Throughout the 304 pages of Chester Higgins' "Feeling the Spirit" the images repeatedly grow into icons. A New York Times photographer, Higgins has spent nearly 30 years and traveled tens of thousands of miles pursuing the African Diaspora. In his text he describes the quest in terms of Isis and Osiris, deities of the Egyptian civilization he claims as ancestor to black people throughout the world. Betrayed and murdered, Osiris is cut into 14 pieces, which are scattered throughout Egypt. Isis, his widow, searches for them, reassembles them and from their seed conceives a radiant son, Horus.

Searching in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, the river banks of Suriname, the desert towns of Mali, candomble rites in Brazil, a street scene in Cuba, churches, barbershops and street celebrations in Harlem and Brooklyn, and the rural quiet of New Brockton, Ala., Higgins-Isis has put together a radiant book.

Its text, passionate and engaging can fall into breathiness and an assertiveness that may invite belief but does not compel it. To use the photographic term, it is sometimes overexposed. The same passion—to discover and celebrate the variety and unity of African culture in today's Africa and in the Western Hemisphere—informs Higgins' photographs. Without it there would be no book. But here it is inseparably joined to art and, if one can distinguish them, to some powerful disciplines.

There is the beauty and revelation of the individual photographs. At the start there is a distant view of Higgins' son on a mountain notch overlooking the cloud filled Rift Valley: he and his father, who took the picture, are about to descend and disappear into it. On page after page the photographer, lyrical and celebratory, disappears into his subjects. And he pulls us along with him.

It is perhaps arbitrary to cite one photograph or another. How much we are affected by a particular shot will depend on the rhythm in which we arrive at it. Any first-rate book of photographs has a rhythm to it; the selection and ordering which, by continuity and contrast, build to a series of climaxes and separate the climaxes with quieter, meditative asides. But rhythm is particularly powerful in Higgins' book. (His picture editor, Kathy Ryan, has been a brilliant collaborator.)

Here is Africa, proclaims a shot of six Dogon dancers in Mali. Dance, of course, lives in its opposite: It is the force of gravity that makes a ballerina's leap seem a miracle. These Dogon dancers are six old men, creaky and erect, their heavy garments falling in stiff lines as they pass in procession along a towering gray escarpment. Not many pages on, is the tall, severe figure of an old. churchgoer in Alabama. His suit coat plunges vertiginously to its double-breasted button-fastening; his trousers are a knife-edged shaft. He could be dressed in a ceremonial robe, and in the immobility of the long old bones is every suggestion of a leap.

If Higgins' camera is celebratory it is because in his subjects he captures such talent for celebrating. In a long seaside shot, Ghanaian fishermen haul up a net; receding toward the water each set of working muscles is also the gesture of a dancer. Six white-clad Barbadian women gather outside Brooklyn's Prospect Park for a Spiritual Baptist ceremony. Their celebration is the more evident for the postures of repose in which they sit or stand.

Higgins is drawn to repose, the moment after a draining effort when life flows back in again. After celebrating Seder in their Mount Vernon synagogue, an Ethiopian rabbi and his wife sit with ceremonious peaceableness, touches of white silk setting off their austere garb. On an Alabama porch railing, a large straw hat occupies the foreground, behind it a farmer draws up his knees, resting. In the dark interior of a shop, two Ghanaian tailors take a checkers break.

There are brilliant, garish shots of Carnival revelers; and of a bony, long limb teen-ager leaning on her bone black bicycle on a street corner in Matanzas, Cuba. There are beautiful, misty shots of sea and sky on the African coast, with figures moving along the beach at dawn or dusk and the silhouette of a man leaning over his kneeling child. Water appears over and over, the water of rituals, and the water edges from which the great forced Diaspora departed Africa and arrived in America.

In a foreword, Higgins tells of a father reading his little boy the story of a man fighting a lion and killing him with a knife. Why doesn't the lion win? the child wants to know. After all he is bigger and stronger and the king of the jungle. "The lion will win," the father replies, "when he writes his own story."

Over three decades, Higgins has journeyed with a camera to write his own story. He wins powerfully; he takes us on his journey.

 
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