Photographer Profile - Chester Higgins, Jr.: "I believe the spirit of things exists in everything"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 12, 2016

When something ceases to live, what is left behind?

It’s a philosophical question. It’s a religious question. And for Chester Higgins, Jr., it’s a photographic question.

Higgins has been an esteemed figure in the New York photography world for decades. A staff photographer for the New York Times from 1974 to 2014, he has been called one of the premier African American photographers of his generation, though the description is perhaps too limiting. Among his six books are Black Woman, Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black America (1850–1950), and Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa.

His most recent book, Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, is the result of a long-time interest in that region of the world — he has traveled to Africa every year since 1971 — and his next one, which he hopes to complete this year, is a visual narrative about the birth and evolution of spirituality and pre-biblical faith along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and Egypt. It is called Before Genesis.

At age 70, Higgins, as inquisitive as ever, has been working on other projects as well, though he says he’s been spending too much time at the doctor recently. “The good news is that whatever he’s doing is working,” he adds. One of those projects has involved investigating spirituality in a new way — by photographing leaves.

For the past several years, Higgins has been collecting leaves that have fallen from trees in the autumn and begun to decay. His black-and-white photographs of them are exquisitely lit and abstracted in Photoshop to the point at which the leaves become nearly unidentifiable objects. They capture something essential, what Higgins calls “the spirit of the thing.”

“I believe the spirit of things exists in everything, including plant life and animal life,” he says. “So I started challenging myself to see if I could translate this spirit into an image.”

His goal, he says, is to see “the macro in the micro,” the universe in the withered residue of foliage.

His ideas are influenced by the years he has spent in Africa, surrounded by the artifacts of life and faith left by cultures that have long since disappeared.

“My love of Egyptology has stretched me and made me realize that reality is more like theater,” he says. “We are acting out a part, and our egos make us think that we are the central role in the drama, when in fact we are just going through a ceremony that comes out of the past.”

Recently, the Studio Museum in Harlem  asked Higgins to contribute work to its annual “Harlem Postcards” project, in which artists interpret the neighborhood through various mediums. “In previous days, I would have gone up to Harlem and shot a representational photograph of the place,” says Higgins. “But I’ve become consumed with this other project, so instead I walked around Harlem last year picking up leaves that were dying and falling.”

The image he ended up creating, called “Harlem Spirt,” is on view through June 26. Higgins sees a connection between it and the other images he has made throughout his career as a newspaper photographer and artist, among them a striking portrait of a Muslim woman in New York and a photo of Maya Angelou dancing with poet Amiri Baraka over the ashes of Langston Hughes in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“What has always driven my photography is the search for the spirit of things,” he says.

The Camera Never Lies About the Photographer

Higgins grew up in rural Alabama — in the town of  New Brockton — and, he says, became a photographer by accident. If you believe in accidents.

He attended the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where he saw a picture by the school’s official photographer, P. H. Polk, that made a deep impression on him.

“He had photographed black country people, farmers in the 1930s. They were very dignified portraits. Today you wouldn’t think that was significant. But at that time, in Alabama, the only photographs of black people you saw featured convicted felons and prostitutes,” he says. “Seeing Polk’s pictures for the first time, I realized how different they were from every other photograph I’d ever seen. And I liked that.”

Higgins studied with Polk, but never considered photojournalism as a career until he saw how powerfully persuasive it could be when used wrongly.

“When I was at Tuskegee, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and we students would sometimes go to Montgomery to protest.” he says. “Then one day I looked at a newspaper that had pictures of us, these young citizens petitioning our country. Except that’s not how the photographer chose to show us. He made us look like thugs, potential rapists and arsonists causing trouble.”

He came to know an important truth about photography. “I learned that the camera never lies about the photographer,” he says. “I had a choice: I could wail against the racism of the pictures or I could go and create photographs that would tell a contrary story.”

After graduating in 1970 Higgins went to New York in search of a teacher.

Discoveries From the Ancients

“In those days there were really no photography schools,” he says. “I went to all the newsstands and looked at the magazines that used pictures well, and I called up each photo editor and said, ‘I’m a student from Alabama and I want to be a photographer, but there’s no place I can learn. I am not looking for a job. I’m looking for someone to show me how to be a better photographer.’”

He found that person at Look magazine, the bi-weekly competitor of Life magazine. Its director of photography at the time, Arthur Rothstein, had created iconic photos of depression-era America as part of the Farm Security Administration, and he saw promise in Higgins. He mentored him and introduced him to prominent curators and photographers, including John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art and Cornell Capa, who a few years later would found the International Center of Photography.

Higgins made his first trip to Ethiopia in 1973, after learning that that African heads of state were gathering for an Organization of African Unity meeting in Addis Ababa. Thereafter he returned annually. “I used my vacation time to travel to Africa each year,” he says.

He didn’t go to get away, however.

“When I travel to Ethiopia or Africa, I’m not in search of something exotic, I’m in search of reflections of myself. In Ethiopia, I’m no longer in a society where I am a minority. I am the majority,” he said in an interview  in the Times in 2015.

In the 1980s Higgins began photographing mummies in the Cairo Museum and became absorbed by the culture of ancient Egypt and the religion that it was built around — one, he notes, that is based in nature.

“Reading about this complex belief, in which deities represented aspects of nature, brought me back to the celebration of the seasons I had witnessed in my childhood,” he said in a recent interview. “The ancients honored the spirit in all things, a philosophy I apply to my image-making today.”

Higgins’s work in Africa is, he says, a search: He looks for what he calls “evidence of humanity’s spiritual legacy.” In Africa, he finds that evidence in ruins and enduring ceremonies. In Harlem, he found it in a leaf.