Chester Higgins, The Indelible Spirit @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 54 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the front gallery space and throughout the rest of the office area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1967 and 1995; most are vintage prints. Physical sizes range from roughly 3×5 to 20×24 inches (or the reverse) and no edition information was provided on the checklist. The exhibition was curated by Carrie Springer. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: With each passing month, the photography world (as defined by the choices of its museums and galleries) is slowly making strides toward a more balanced sense of inclusivity. This is particularly true for African American photographers, many of whom have been largely overlooked in the past and are now being offered new and broader opportunities for exposure.

Given Chester Higgins’s extensive photo biography, it wouldn’t seem like he was a photographer much in need of rediscovery, and yet, his story is certainly underknown. Higgins took up photography as an undergraduate, working at the Tuskegee University newspaper in the late 1960s. A year later, on a trip to New York, he met Arthur Rothstein who was then Director of Photography at LOOK, and that friendship led to introductions to Cornell Capa, Gordon Parks, and Romare Bearden, all three becoming important influences in his development as a young photographer. He soon landed a job as a staff photographer at the New York Times, where he worked for nearly four decades (1975-2014). Along the way, he made time for a number of personal projects, most of which found their way into photobooks, of which he has published more than a half dozen in his long career.

This show takes a survey approach to these projects, skimming across both time and place, including images made in Alabama, New York, and across the ocean in various African countries. A few of Higgins’s photographs from late 1960s/early 1970s Alabama touch on the rallies and student leaders of the Civil Rights movement, but most are more intimate, getting in closer to look at Black individuals and the rhythms of their lives. He captures the methodical work of a barber, the compassionate lessons of a baseball coach talking to his catcher, and the intent work of a boy fixing his bicycle, each image a study in honest engagement. Other pictures center on resonant details, like the wary glance of a bonneted girl on her front porch, the crisscrossed suspenders and aging hands of Uncle March Fourth McGowan,  and the singing mouths and praying hands of church goers. Even in these early photographs, Higgins clearly had an eye for the contrasts of black-and-white photography, and the patience to wait for moments of quiet grace.

When Higgins pointed his camera at New York city during these same early years, his approach was similarly attentive to seeing positivity and warmth in the lives of everyday Black people. He tracked the flow of energy through local cafes in Harlem, followed kids strutting in trendy outfits, and saw the private introspective moments of a Bowery man sitting on the sidewalk and a young boy leaning on a street corner. Some of his most successful images from this period show us the tenderness of Black families, and he often used silhouette to amplify the simple joy of a singular moment – a father swings his son at the park (with the misty forms of the Twin Towers in the background), a family walks down the street arm in arm with a child riding on the father’s shoulders, a young boy ecstatically jumps in the spray of water from a hydrant in Harlem, and another family strolls under the trees in Fort Greene Park. Still other images find Higgins seduced by urban details, from repetitions of Stetson hats and monkey bar shadows to the symbolic combination of clasped hands atop an American flag.

Starting in the early 1970s, Higgins also started making trips to Africa, and his images from Ghana and Senegal apply his aesthetic tools to a thoughtful search for connections to Black history and culture. His visit to the slave houses of Gorée Island in Dakar yielded many charged moments, where Higgins used enveloping darkness and silhouette to capture the echoes of pain and suffering. He turns an empty window with a tied curtain into a study in contrasts and emptiness, while a silhouetted view of a woman with a headscarf feels more like a ghost than a portrait. His image of the infamous Door of No Return captures a view of the sea interrupted by the silhouette of a woman framed by the blackness of the door – it’s a poignant and human image, rather than one that plays on obvious geometries.

In Ghana, Higgins allows more serendipity into his process, where fleeting moments lead to opportunities for engaging compositions. He catches the ocean spray as it douses a group of boys on the rocks, follows the early morning mist as it envelops a sunrise prayer meeting, and notices the details of basin fishing with a string and cowrie shells on the back of dress. Two other strong images uncover echoes of pattern, one between a marbled serving dish and a patterned dress, and another between eggs for sale and the round rocks below between the train tracks.

Aside from one signature image of a young Muslim woman staring out from underneath a crisp white headscarf and veil, most of Higgins’s closer-in images of people aren’t portraits exactly, but studies of texture. This is true of the layered folds of white cloth that wrap around a man’s head in Mali, the polka dot ensemble of a woman in Dakar, and the neatly pleated headwrap of a woman in Manhattan, and a fourth image of an Atlanta woman looking up is really about featuring her neck and necklace more than her face.

As seen in this edit organized by Whitney curator Carrie Springer, Higgins’s consistency as an image maker is impressive. Particularly in the earlier work that provides the foundation of this show, he proves himself to be a sensitive and perceptive photographer, who seems happiest finding moments of understated radiance in the modest flow of the everyday. Bringing Higgins back to the forefront now should help cement his rightful place in the history of 20th century photography of the Black experience.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8000 and $30000 each. Higgins’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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