Photo District News

February 1995-Book Report

 

Chester Higgins'

Feeling The Spirit

by Holly Stuart Hughes

In Mali, a man finds sanctuary and shade in the village elders' meeting house. In Alabama, three elderly men rest on the porch of a grocery store. In Brazil, women in dugout boats make offerings to the Yoruban deity of the sea, while on a beach in Grenada, on the day of the Big Drum Ceremony, women dance a dance that has been passed down from the descendants of former slaves. A fruit vendor in Ghana, holding a basket of her wares, tosses back her turbaned head and laughs, and her easy grace is mirrored by an elegant young woman settling into a cab speeding up Manhattan's East River Drive.

Feeling The Spirit: Searching The World For The People Of Africa the new book by New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr., documents African art and traditions flourishing around the world. In his 26 years of traveling around Africa and to communities of African descendants around the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the United States,

 

Higgins' camera has revealed affinities between residents of Africa and their far-flung relatives dispersed by slavery. While art historians and anthropologists have long documented the powerful influence of African-born art, music, religions and culture, Higgins has digested these academic studies and produced something new and more personal. In his photographs and in his own reflective, nostalgic prose, Higgins has described the pull that has drawn him back to Africa again and again, and the bonds he has formed with people there.

Clearly, this is no ordinary photography book. Higgins' agent, Sandra Dijkstra, calls it 'an African-American 'Family of Man.' Its message seems to be well tuned to these times: as Afro centric history and black pride philosophies are hotly debated, Higgins celebrates African culture with more affection than cant. He writes, "Today more than ever, the challenge is to overcome our crisis of confidence, our fear of success and our unwillingness to take complete responsibility of ourselves. We must reclaim our history, recognize the strength of our character and rejoice in the vibrancy of our culture."

The book's publisher, Bantam Books, is gambling that Feeling The Spirit will have wide appeal. They gave Higgins an advance he calls "substantial" and ordered a first run of 50,000 copies. Most photo books sell, at best, 10,000 copies, but months before the October publication date, more than half the run had already been sold to booksellers. Bantam has also supported the book with print ads placed in newspapers during the Christmas shopping season, and booked Higgins for television and radio interviews. The book's editor, Rob Weisbach, whose previous projects for Bantam include the bestsellers Seinlanguage, about Jerry Seinfeld's television show and Couplehood by comedian Paul Reiser, says of Higgins' work, "I see this as a book every family, whether of African descent or not, should have in their library."

Given the uncanny appropriateness of the idea behind Feeling The Spirit, it may be surprising that it hasn't been done before. But there may never have been anyone better suited to produce this book than Chester Higgins. The photos in the book cover 26 years of his career, including pictures he took in his childhood home in Alabama, and on his first trip to Africa in the early Seventies. The lengthy bibliography lists the dozens of books of history, anthropology, and sociology that he has studied and absorbed. "It's my odyssey, my journey of self-discovery," he says, and when he talks about the book, with his characteristic energy and buoyant enthusiasm, it's clear that this subject has been the consuming passion of his adult life.

It's a life that has been shaped by dramatic events and historic figures of our times. The great-great-grandchild of a slave who fought in the Civil War, Higgins grew up in the rural South, came of age during the civil rights movement and moved North to New York at a time of racial unrest. His mentors, he says, have included the artist Romare Bearden and photographers Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein, and after he photographed Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1973, the charismatic leader became a powerful influence on his life and work. The frontispiece of Feeling The Spirit shows Higgins' portrait of the emperor and dedicates the book to his memory.

Higgins first got interested in photography as a student at Tuskegee Institute. Though he majored in business management, he studied under photographer P.H. Polk. Higgins knew that after graduation, he wanted to find a way to serve the civil rights struggle without being an organizer or a spokesperson. He thought photography would be the way to do it. "I could rail against racism, I could shout about it, or I could try to affect a change in racists," he says. "Every time I saw images of my people in the mass media, they were pathological. The images of people I knew, strong people like my Great Aunt Shugg, or my grandfather, who was a minister, or my mother, who was a teacher–they went unseen by America at large." As a photographer, he could provide an alternative portraits of blacks. "I think there is a real danger that you become what you consume, but I believe anyone can be open to change."

He began by taking photographs in his hometown and around Tuskegee. Black World magazine published four pages of his photos of country life. But Higgins decided that his target was the mainstream media, he had to go to its source: New York.

In 1969, the summer before he graduated from Tuskegee, Higgins took his portfolio to the picture editors of Newsweek, The New York Times and Life. "I wasn't looking for a job," he says, "I wanted criticism." At Look, he got to see Sam Young. While he was in Young's office, Higgins recalls, an older man stuck his head in the door and asked what he was doing. The man turned out to be Arthur Rothstein, former Farm Security Administration photographer-turned-photo-editor and legend. Higgins recalls, "He said, 'You have an interesting eye. You could use some lessons in composition, lighting, point of view.' I loved it." Under Rothstein's tutelage, Higgins spent the summer learning about photography, going to museum shows, learning to look at paintings, and shooting practice assignments.

With time, the studies turned into his first real assignment: to photograph Jesse Jackson and the organization he had just started in Chicago, Operation Push. Look devoted five pages to the story just before the magazine folded.

By 1971, young Higgins had already gained some success. He had landed two book contracts–one for a collection of photos of black women, the other of black men–and he was getting magazine assignments. He was ready to fulfill his dream: to photograph Africa.

 

 

 

"In the Sixties, there was a need to disengage from the rules of the white establishment. But once disengaged, we needed something new. I thought I had the opportunity to find a new moral and ethical outlook."

When he first went, he says, few photographers were covering African life. "We were only given pejorative images of Africa. I went with openness–the same way I do everything–to see for myself. 'What do they look like? I asked. 'What do they share with Americans'"

The questions led him first to East Africa, then, in 1972, he went to West Africa. Over the next three years, he traveled to Africa more than a dozen times, staying from a week to three months on each visit. After Higgins' first encounter with Emperor Selassie, a Nigerian friend told him about the Jamaican rastafarians, who worship Selassie as Christ. Intrigued, Higgins made his first visit to Jamaica in 1974. The trip may have been an early indication of the global outlook that Feeling The Spirit would take, but at that time, Higgins says, a book project was far from his mind.

None of his trips were done on assignment. Over the years, however, he has received several grants, including one from the Ford Foundation to study the transition of African villages from traditional to modern ways of life. His grant application was supported by Margaret Mead and Eliot Skinner, whom Higgins credits with helping him "refine my critical thinking." He prepared for each trip by studying and reading about each destination, ordering newspapers from the cities he would visit, and by saving money. "I lived in villages, keeping costs low," he explains. Everywhere he went, he would find a guide, often a spiritual leader, who would ease his entry into the community. "I would show them my pictures so they could see what I'm about. I would tell them I'm here to make a record of them to show people in my country who do not know they exist." Higgins says. "Humility and honesty are underused assets."

Originally inspired by intellectual curiosity, his trips soon took on a deeper meaning. Asked to name some of his favorite places, Higgins says, "I have a special feeling about Ghana because of the people. They remind me of the people I grew up with in the South. They are a very religious people, very warm, very open. And, the earth smells like home, because it's red clay." In Senegal, he has

photographed the House of the Slaves, the destination point for enslaved Africans about to be loaded into ships. He has been back to the site 11 times. Of the Senegalese, he says. "They are not quite as open, you have to work a little harder to get to know them, but I have had friends there for over 20 years."

In 1982, Higgins and his wife divorced, and an acrimonious child custody battle left him broke, depressed and aimless in his work. Cornell Capa, then director of New York's International Center of Photography, urged him to find a subject to work on. The topics Capa suggested had to do with blacks in the States, but looking over his work, Higgins realized that, in all this trips combined, he had spent a total of three years outside the U.S. "I am a man with an international head," he says. He began to think about the African Diaspora–the scattering of slaves around the globe, and the larger community of Africans living around the world.

Soon Higgins was back in Africa, revisiting the monuments of ancient Egypt. Over the next few years he also returned to Jamaica, and traveled to Cuba, St. Lucia and Belize. In Mexico, he met the descendants of slaves and photographed the giant Olmec heads of Villahermosa; Higgins believes that the vaguely African facial features on the heads lend credence to the disputed theory that there might have been an African presence in the Americas before Columbus.

Higgins still had only a vague idea of what he would do with the images. "He had this notion in his heart and in his head before I think it was even articulated," says Kathy Ryan, photography director of The New York Times Magazine and an early supporter of the project. "He believes in himself. He believes that if you feel passionately about something, you have to get the pictures, and you can't get discouraged. You can get the book or exhibit later. That will always be in my thoughts–how hard he worked on something that was just a bit of a dream."

Ryan first heard about Higgins' work on the Diaspora when he showed her his general portfolio. One picture stood out. It shows an African-American rabbi and his wife, photographed after a Seder they shared with Higgins. Says Ryan, "There was something special about that photograph, a certain kind of grace." She asked if he had any more work on religious subjects. "He said, 'I'll see,' and he came back the next day with 300 contact sheets," Ryan says. "Every time I asked if he had more, he did. It was a treasure trove."

She presented her editors with a photo essay on religious groups in New York, who carry on African traditions. The essay, published in 1992, included the portrait of the rabbi and his wife, as well as images of Ethiopian orthodox Coptic Christians and Brazilian immigrants worshipping Yoruban deities. These images later appeared in the chapters called "Spirituality" and "Rites."

Six of Higgins' book proposals were rejected by publishers. But while he was gathering new images, interest was growing in multiculturalism and in African subjects. A friend introduced him to his third agent, Sandy Dijkstra of Del Mar, California. When she first heard about Higgins' project, she was skeptical. "In today's publishing, so many art books are remaindered. But he'd keep telling me that it's more that a photo book." She met Higgins during a business trip in New York. Once she saw the images, Dijkstra says, she loved the book. She decided to bring Higgins along on her appointments to meet New York publishers.

"I thought if we could find the right publisher, we could do something special," Dijkstra says. "Rather than take Chester to a publishing house where his would be one of several picture books, I thought we should sell his book as a piece of Americana." The day after they met with representatives from Bantam, they had an offer.

Higgins won't disclose the amount of his advance, except to say it was enough money to allow him to take a four-month leave of absence from the Times–he still needed to get photographs of Haiti, Brazil, the fourth-century rock churches of Ethiopia and other subjects. The money also allowed him to enlist an expert production team: Kathy Ryan would edit the photos, Arnold Skolnick of Chameleon Books would design the book, and Gary Schneider of Schneider Erdman in New York would print all the images for reproduction. All agreed Higgins should write the text. "I had to realize that it's my story to tell," says the photographer, adding that his companion, Betsy Kissam, an editor, helped him "turn it into literature."

In January 1993, Ryan's dining room table was surrendered to the project, as she sorted through boxes of contact sheets. Once preliminary pictures were chosen, Jim Pearson of The Times made work prints; these were captioned by Higgins and Kissam. Together, Ryan, Higgins and Kissam chose images for

each chapter: "Most Ancient Places," for example focuses on ancient Egyptian and

Ethiopian sites. "In Our Manner" includes not only portraits but images that capture stances, gestures and expressions. "Sanctuaries" include images of a Harlem diner, a laundry line hanging in a yard in Ghana, and an image of an elderly Muslim man wearing white robes made of flour sacks; he reclines in his seat in a third class train compartment, and his posture shows the same combination of relaxation and alert poise seen in the most graceful African statuary.

Ryan went through 11,000 contact sheets, eventually narrowing the selection to around 250 images. Schneider began making up prints in May and worked through September. A total of 400 pages were delivered to Weisbach at Bantam, who worked with Higgins on editing text and pulling pictures until the book was down to 304 pages.

The book was printing in Italy on 100-pound stock. Higgins is pleased that Bantam managed to keep the price to $50, given its high production values. Says Weisbach, "We wanted to make sure it was available to a wide range of buyers."

This fall, the Schomburg Center in New York chose 140 images from the book and turned them into an exhibit on African worship traditions of Africa. Higgins hopes more exhibits will follow. His research and studies momentarily interrupted by a book tour, he is eager to get back to his next project, a companion piece to Feeling The Spirit that will look at the archaeological remains in the Great African Rift and at early civilizations in the area. Talking about the years of planning and photographing ahead of him, Higgins' enthusiasm in unflagging.

"I think this book is for everyone," he says of Feeling The Spirit. "Yes, it's for black people, but it also speaks to the universality of being human." Twenty-six years in the making, the book also speaks to the unstoppable force that is Chester Higgins Jr.

 
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