by Cassie Baum
African-American Art History Lafayette College December 1, 2003 Chester Higgins Jr. is a contemporary, well-known and established African-American artist who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Along with being a photographer (which is what he is most well known for), Higgins is also a recognized author and speaker. He has composed numerous photo collections, is a staff photographer for The New York Times with featured photographs in several acclaimed magazines and newspapers, has displayed exhibitions in many museums including the Smithsonian Institution and is a recipient of a number of awards. Higgins is also a member of the influential and prevailing Authors Guild. He has offered his expertise and opinion in photography as well as world events and issues on many television shows including “Eyewitness News.” Curiously, his education consisted of obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from Tuskegee University in Alabama. His main focus in his photography is humanity and the origin of human decent mainly from the African culture. Although the subject matter of his photographs includes people of all races, his underlying theme that runs throughout his portfolio is the connection with humans and African roots. His photographic philosophy is that the photograph reflects the photographer and the photographer should go about taking pictures in a way that allows his or her personality to show through, no matter what the subject matter is. Higgins’ self-proclaimed mission to being a photographer is “to show the decency, dignity, and virtuous character of people of African descent.” The major theme that runs throughout his photographic portfolio is the attempt to illustrate and accurately document the African Diaspora. Chester Higgins Jr. has many influences that come through in his work and his art. He has mentored in photography under numerous acclaimed photographers including P. H. Polk from 1967 to 1969, Arthur Rothstein from 1969 to 1978, Cornell Capa from 1970 to 1980 and Gordon Parks from 1971 to 1980. He has also mentored in art under the contemporary African American artist, Romare Bearden from 1972 to 1980. In his photographic projects, Higgins has been inspired by many subjects, and images that reflect his universal and worldly interests. These inspirations not only hold true to his philosophy of portraying the African in an earnest and positive light, but also draw references to many other walks of life. His most recent project, titled “Elder Grace” completed in 2000, is a portrait of numerous elderly women and men who, according to Higgins, “are beacons, in my mind--perhaps even national treasures, which we as a society need not only to appreciate and applaud, but to study and emulate.” One of his earliest projects, titled “Drums of Life” from 1974 is a powerful collection of photographs, which tells the narrative of the black man, as well as brings out the personality of Higgins himself. In this compilation, Higgins portrays the relationship between black men through their interactions with each other, their environment, their families and their own individuality. Although barely any of the pictures contains a drum in it, Higgins sees the Koforidua, Ghana
Bent Pyramid, Dashur, Egypt
drum as an ever-present force that connects the people in his portraits to the feelings he is trying to portray. He states, “I see the Drum as the number one spiritual mover in the universe. It has always been a dominant force in the heritage and culture of Black folks. Because of its force, we move to its power as it permeates our whole being. The life force, that ability to touch everything with power and love is what I celebrate in the lives of the Black men in this book.” This connecting “force” (although not always in the form of a drum) is a constant theme in Higgins’ work. Higgins states that his artistic goal is to “share this vision of African peoples and to highlight our extraordinary and remarkable cultures and traditions, similarities and differences that deserve celebration and have been the stimulus driving my photography for the past three decades.” One of his biggest influences, or rather agents of curiosity is the way in which people interact with each other and the subsequent attitude that comes forth in their presence from this interaction. One specific portfolio that Higgins has accumulated in his career that I feel is especially interesting as well as reflective upon the artist’s personal philosophy is his collection titled “Vital Forms.” This is a compilation of photographs of the beauty and form of the African female body. This includes many nude images, close-ups on specific parts of the body, and pictures of the body adorned with African jewelry. In these pictures, the body is a very dark, almost indistinguishable shape against stark white and gray backgrounds. Two photographs that I particularly find fascinating as well as representative of this body of work are “Diva” and “Repose.” The picture “Diva” is that of a black woman, sitting with her hands wrapped around her knees that are bent against her chest. Although this image is placed against a white background, there is a strong use of shading, which makes the body appear mysterious and statuesque. Her eyes are closed in a calm, pensive way with her chin pointed upward which gives the woman a confident and almost regal appearance. In the picture “Repose,” Higgins creates a more abstract image of the female form. He uses an eye-level perspective looking directly at the head of a woman lying down with her body behind her. Her shoulders and breasts are silhouetted against the background, creating an almost non-human shape. There is a slight source of light that comes from the right illuminating the woman’s body in just the way to identify the image as a human form. As in “Diva,” the face of the woman is tranquil and strong, evoking dignity and assurance in her pose. Higgins uses these images to portray women and the female body in a positive and powerful light. He idolizes them and places them on an iconic, goddess-like level. Through his previous as well as his most recent work, Chester Higgins Jr. has proven to be a permanent fixture in the history of contemporary American art. His positive philosophy on the way one views the world has and will forever be a major influence on future artists and audiences alike. Because of his strong and sincere beliefs in what he values as beautiful, powerful and important in life, Higgins has the staying power and the credentials to become an artist that will be studied in American and African-American art history books for many years to come.
Bronx, New York