P.H. Polk Watch Video
 
One fall afternoon in 1967, I was in the downstairs office of P. H. Polk's studio on Washington Avenue in Tuskegee waiting for him to finish drying some prints.

A door closed and from behind studio curtains, the figure of Mr. Polk dashed out holding a wet print. He showed me the image and I felt reassured that at least one print was almost ready, even though he still had more film to process. He disappeared back through the curtains, but before the black fabric fell back, I caught a peek of some photographs on the inner wall. Five of these grabbed my imagination the moment I laid eyes on them. After the door closed again, I ducked through the curtains to have a better look.

Hanging crooked on the wall were pictures of rural older men and women, standing in all the proudness of themselves. Although made in the 1930s, the pictures entranced me in 1967, and they hold the same power when I see them today.

The people in these photographs differed from the ones of Mr. Polk's other works. These subjects, seemingly rural religious people, were so familiar to me. As a youngster, I had seen people with the same dignity and character in my church and among farmers.

The door closed again and out popped Mr. Polk. He told me it would take him longer to finish, and he invited me into his lab to watch and wait. I agreed eager to ask him about the pictures that had touched me. He told me that he had made them some 35 years ago far out in the country. When someone caught his eye, he simply stopped and invited that person to be photographed.

Excitement welled up inside me, as I imagined making such a picture of my Great-aunt Shugg Lampley. My Aunt Shugg was a midwife, bow-legged and loving, who made a to-die-for blackberry pie. I envisioned a portrait also of my Great-uncle March Forth McGowan, and likewise his brother, my Great-uncle John McGowan, well as my Uncle Bougg McGowan walking behind his plowing mule.

My inquisitiveness elicited more descriptive answers concerning the pictures on the wall as well as some others that Mr. Polk uncovered and blew dust off. I sat there reliving an era that had passed before me so quickly when I was still a child. The era was gone, but thanks to photography these people seemed to live on. I was staring into their world and loving every minute of it. For me, these photographs held power. I felt drawn into the lives of the subjects.

I was impressed with the people and grateful that Mr. Polk had the skill to record them for posterity. Although they may have been dead, their image was there alone with me. I felt satisfied. I was enriched.

I needed a camera. My confrontation with his pictures from the 1930s had unleashed another kind of yearning: I wanted to become a photographer.

CH226 Boss
 
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