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