The New York Times
Books of The Times
Friday, February 6, 1981
Some Time Ago
Pictures From the Black Past
By Julius Lester
The study of history is the effort to recreate the past and make it as vivid and overwhelmingly intense as today. Of course, that is impossible. The memory of August’s sun does not melt January’s snow. Yet, the memory of what was can enable one to endure what is, and can even bring hope of what will be.
"Some Time Ago" gives such a sense of history. Chester Higgins Jr., a photographer for The New York Times, collected 4,000 photographs from libraries, museums and homes. He selected 300 of them for this book in an effort to recreate the black American past as it was. The result satisfies on the deepest level.
Here are photographs by the great photographers of the Farm Security Administration — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee and others — as well as the work of previously unknown black photographers.
In the photographs of "Some Time Ago" were of only historical and sociological interest, the book would be of limited appeal. However, these are not snapshots, but images communicating the essences of people, times and places. First and foremost, these are good photographs, some even great, and care has been taken in the book’s layout and design to show the photographs to fullest advantage.
There are portraits — former slaves and the well-dressed, proud black bourgeoisie. There are portraits of the famous — W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, a marvelous one of Louis Armstrong and another of Leadbelly in a pin-stripe suit, holding his 12-string guitar across his lap, a big cigar jutting from a corner of his mouth. There are the photographs that make one shudder — a lynching victim with his murderers posed in stunned confusion around his body and, on the adjacent page, three lynched men laid on couches, members of their family, in stunned confusion, standing in a row at the head of the bodies.
"Some Time Ago" is not a chronological survey. Instead, Mr. Higgins chose rightly to present the spectrum and essence of black history from slavery to the dawn of the civil rights era. Sharecroppers and social climbers, country roads and city streets, achievements and anguish commingle in these pages.
Orde Coombs’s text celebrates the triumphs and struggles of blacks. Coming as it does in brief passages introducing each section of photographs, the text’s sentimental pathos does not detract from the power of the photographs.
To the degree that it is possible for memory to restore life, past and present meld in this collection of photographs. One closes the book with the satisfying experience of, yes, this is how it was "some time ago" and, not so easily understood but also true, that this is how it is.