P. H. Polk: Tuskegee University’s photographer

© 1997, Chester Higgins Jr.


In the beginning...One afternoon in 1967 – it seemed like spring – I was in the downstairs office of Mr. Polk's studio on Washington Avenue in Tuskegee, Alabama, waiting for him to finish drying some prints. I had arrived in an impatient mood ready to hurry the photographer along. The student editors of the college newspaper had a deadline and the prints should have been finished long before. To pass the time and to distract me from my impatience, I began to look at Mr. Polk's photographs about the room.

There were many prints, mostly in disheveled array, some on the wall, some under glass on the counter, some in frames. They were all striking pictures of people, either alone or with someone. Here were portraits – recording the lives of people at Tuskegee University – photos of professors, their wives, their children, their grandchildren. And some were of the social groups and activities of administrative and student life at the university.

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 the print was in process, even though he still had more film to process for additional prints. He disappeared back again through the curtains, but before the curtain 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, these pictures entranced me in 1967, and they hold the same power when I see them today.

It was the subjects of these photographs that differed from the ones of Mr. Polk's other works. Never before had I seen photographs of my people revealing such dignity and character. These subjects, seemingly rural and religious people, were so familiar to me. As a youngster from a town of 800 people in New Brockton, Alabama, I had seen people with this distinctiveness when I traveled in the back country with my grandfather, a minister, the Rev. Warren Smith.

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 these pictures some 35 years ago way out in the country. When someone caught his eye, he simply stopped and invited them 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 of my great-uncle John McGowan as well as my great-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 of. 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 their lives.

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

I needed a camera...Some days later, having met the deadline and fulfilled my obligations as advertising manager for THE CAMPUS DIGEST, I returned to visit Mr. Polk. My confrontation with his pictures from the 1930s had unleashed another kind of yearning: I wanted to become a photographer.

After all, he made it look so easy. All he did was carry a camera slung around his neck. He put it up to his eye, aimed and pressed a button. Several times during a session he might try different angles before processing the film and making prints.

Then and there I knew I wanted to make pictures. But I didn't even own a camera. The only photographer I knew was Mr. Polk. So I went to Mr. Polk's house, where I found him just waking up from his afternoon nap. Every night he worked late into the night in his darkroom.

I told him I wanted to learn how to be a photographer – in particular, that I wanted to make photographs of the treasures in my life.

I looked into his face and said, "Mr. Polk, would you teach me how to use your camera? I want to learn enough to be able to go to my home and make photographs of a few people there that I love very much. Mr. Polk paused and leaned toward me, giving me careful study. I began to feel anxious.

The he said, "Let me understand this. You want me to loan you my only camera, the one that I have to make a living with, to teach you how to make a picture."

"Yessir Mr. Polk, yessir!" I answered as enthusiastically as I could.

"Well I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to be just as big a fool as you. If you're fool enough to ask that of me, then I'm going to be fool enough to help you. I'm going to lend you my camera."

Right then and there, he gave me a quick lesson on how to use his camera, and I agreed to return it in a few hours. Two hours later I was back with an exposed roll still in his only Pentax camera. My film stuck at the end of the roll, because I didn't know how to rewind it and, unwilling to risk ruining it, I had just left it in the camera.

He removed the film, and we both went into the darkroom so he could process it. It was a disaster! Out of a roll of 20 exposures, only two came out. I couldn't understand what I had done wrong.

Then Mr. Polk began to correct me. I had failed to grasp how much light was needed to expose film. Even though his 1960s Pentax didn't have a light meter, he made reading light seem effortless. It was this skill that he concentrated on – giving me lessons on the necessary f stops for shooting the shade, in the sun, and indoors.

After awhile, I sensed Mr. Polk's reluctance to let his only 35mm camera out of his sight. I still visited him and asked him many questions, absorbing his lessons, but I only asked to borrow his camera three times. That summer I bought my own camera (with a built-in light meter), which I proudly showed off to Mr. Polk when I returned to school that fall.

After a messy and unsuccessful bout with darkroom chemicals in my apartment bathroom, I asked Mr. Polk if I could pay him to process my film for me. This, I knew, would also give me an opportunity to learn more from him about darkroom technique.

One day I stopped by to pick up my prints and began talking "craft hype." I had saved some money and had been reading photo magazines. I thought I was ready for a new, more modern system. I told Mr. Polk that I was planning to travel to a camera store in Auburn, some 30 miles away, to purchase it. Mr. Polk stepped back and quietly told me, "There is no camera that can make a picture. No lens, no lights can make a picture. Forget about different cameras and accessories, just use what you've got. Only your eyes can make a picture."

I found Mr. Polk an easy man to love. He possessed dignity, such uncluttered openness. Mr. Polk and his subjects shared the same human qualities – the same air of dignity and self-knowledge. In some way, he seemed to enter into the hearts of the people he photographed.

Mr. Polk had words that could put any of his photographic subjects at ease. For instance, if a man was being stiff, invariably Mr. Polk would say, "Imagine you are in the jungle. You have a rifle and one bullet. A bull and a lion are charging at you. Which one would you shoot?" After some hesitation, being somewhat curious as to what the question had to do with having his picture made, the sitter would answer, "the bull." "No," Mr. Polk would say, "You should shoot the lion, because you can always shoot the bull." The tension would break and with it the sitter's anxiety. Having set up the moment, Mr. Polk was ready to click his shutter.

Another of his favorite lines was, "What part of Mississippi are you from?" With the horrible repressive reputation Mississippi held for the mistreatment of African Americans, nobody wanted to be from that state. In the process of vehemently setting Mr. Polk straight, his subject always forgot about the camera. After Mr. Polk made his picture, then he would say, "Well, I could have sworn you were from Mississippi, but I see now you are from somewhere else."

For me, Mr. Polk's photographs epitomized the rural south of my youth. With his camera, he was able to bring out the heroic qualities of his subjects – capturing their true essence. He simply liked people and let them know it. He was never afraid of being personal.


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