PictureScope — Summer 1981
SOME TIME AGO, Doubleday 1980
Some Time Ago, a book of photographs interspersed with text, is a difficult book to consider dispassionately, because it begins to fill the large gap that exists in the pictorial history of black people in America. It is tempting to praise the book on this basis alone. But pioneering effort aside, this work must be judged on its own merit.
Some Time Ago approaches its subject with romanticism and nostalgia, and the reader must resolve this bias (or at least be aware of its existence). In choosing photographs from the massive quantity that exists, Higgins has been necessarily selective and, it is hoped, representative. This book is divided into chapters with broad themes, such as women, men, faith, etc. Each chapter is headed by an introductory essay by Orde Coombs, which is often based on recollections of people he has known to be models of endurance and perseverance. In his introduction, Coombs states that the photographs are strong enough to tell their own story: and so they are. But the essays, in their poetically forceful style, are tinged with melancholy and some bitterness, and this not only neutralizes the intended joy of survival and perseverance, but tends to counteract the power of the images that follow. The writing only occasionally relates to the photographs it precedes. It is as if there are two books here — a group of essays and a collection of equally powerful photographs.
Despite competing text and photographs, a strong theme emerges from Some Time Ago. That theme is the fragility of the American dream, the promise that loomed large but was not fulfilled. Higgins uses photographs of black Americans to illustrate his point. The theme, however, is one that transcends any racial or ethnic boundaries. With rare exceptions, the situations pictured are not unique to black people. The church picnics and old men chatting after Sunday services could have taken place in white, rural New England instead of rural Louisiana. The photographs of a family of black sharecroppers in Alabama taken by the Farm Security Administration’s Jack Delano parallel those of white sharecroppers in Alabama made by Walker Evans. Intensifying this universality of shared human experience is the wide range of subjects that Higgins has chosen to include. There are portraits of famous people (Louis Armstrong, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois), and penetrating images of unknown faces. There is the romantic gauzelike softness of Doris Ullman’s images of rural folk and the sharply-focused, hard-edged abstractions of a group of ballet dancers. There is also a nice balance between images of quiet joy and those of quiet sorrow. The images in Some Time Ago, in addition to their intrinsic power, have acquired the patina of history that gives them acceptance and an undeniable verity created by the actuality of photographic fact. They are deliberate and extremely conscious of their subjects.