In the summer of 1968, when the civil rights movement was reaching a fever pitch, Chester Higgins picked up his brand-new camera and began to photograph scenes around his native Alabama. That spring, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, only heightening the protests around the Jim Crow laws, laws which forcibly enacted racial segregation. The local media in Alabama was not kind to the protestors, using imagery to depict these men and women as criminals and thugs. Higgins, frustrated and dismayed by the media spin, grabbed his camera and began to photograph the community around him: Black men and women who, as he later described, “work hard, go to church, have respectful and loving relationships. We need images of black people that reflect the fullness of our lives.”
These photographs and more are now on view in a new show titled “Chester Higgins: The Indelible Spirit” on view at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York, tracing Higgins’s journey from those first photographs in Alabama, to becoming a staff photographer at the New York Times, and later, trips to Ghana and Senegal. Higgins’s interest in photography began when he visited the studio of P.H. Polk, a fellow Alabamian, who became a mentor and friend, having lent Higgins a camera and helping guide him into the art.
Higgins learned quickly. From his photographs of Alabama in the 60s to New York in the 90s, Higgins developed his unique style: a play on shadow and light, capturing moments that seem so pure that a cynical viewer might almost accuse Higgins of having staged them. Early Morning Coffee, Harlem has the same balance of light and contrast as Edward Hopper’s infamous Nighthawks, as an elderly man looks out the diner window with half of his figure covered in shadow.
But it is the softness—almost tenderness—which Higgins imbues in his photographs that stands out the most. In a radical contrast to the propagandistic imagery of Black men and women in the late 60s depicting anger and violence, Necklace, Georgia shows a young woman looking skyward, the background in such soft focus that it is a duo-tone of light and dark. She has a faint smile on her lips, and there is a luminous quality to her skin. It is a reverential portrait.
One of his most poignant images comes from those early years in Alabama. In Front Porch, Macon County, Higgins photographs a young girl leaning against a wooden pole on her porch, looking back towards him questioningly. The whites of her eyes and her bonnet are so sharply white that they pull her strongly into the frame, but she seems shy, reserved. Perhaps she’d never been photographed before. She is alone. We do not know anything about her, except that Higgins chose to photograph her on that day.
Higgins’s photographs gave meaning to the people that the media, perhaps deliberately, overlooked. In a statement about his work, Higgins says: “These subjects will not be forgotten; they cannot be erased. They matter.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
“Chester Higgins, The Indelible Spirit”, on view until June 26, 2021 at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, Third Floor, New York, NY 10011. More information here.