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Chester Higgins, Jr.

Photographer and author Chester Higgins, Jr. was born in Fairhope, Alabama. Higgins’s years attending Tuskegee University in the late 1960s served as his inspiration to pursue a career in photography; during this time, he saw the work of photographer P.H. Polk, a man who would become his first mentor. Polk’s images powerfully impacted the viewer because of the way that they showed the dignity of African American life in the rural South during the 1930s. Hall’s photography, combined with Higgins acquiring his first camera just in time to bear witness to student unrest on the Tuskegee campus, provided the budding photographer with a strong motivation to document the African American experience in the United States as he saw it unfolding around him. Higgins would compile the work Student Unrest at Tuskegee Institute in 1968 about the events that he saw taking place on campus.

Higgins graduated in 1970 from Tuskegee University, and soon after moved to New York City to begin his professional career; his first assignment was to follow and document the political activities of Jesse Jackson, then a young civil rights activist. In 1975, Higgins began his work as a photographer for the New York Times, an association that would continue throughout his professional career. Over the years, Higgins’s photographs were also published in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Ebony, Essence and Black Enterprise magazines.

In addition to his photojournalistic achievements, Higgins published several collections of his photography, including: Black Woman in 1970; Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa in 1994; the Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging in 2000; and Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey in 2004. Higgins’s work was featured in a variety of solo exhibits, including the traveling exhibition Landscapes of the Soul, which toured nationally at locations such as the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum for African Art in New York City. Selections of Higgins’s photography were acquired for the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Higgins has been the recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Center of Photography, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, and the Andy Warhol Foundation, to carry out his work.

Accession Number

A2005.205

Sex

Male

Interview Date

8/26/2005 |and| 9/2/2005

Last Name

Higgins

Maker Category
Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Warren G. Smith School

Tuskegee University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Chester

Birth City, State, Country

Fairhope

HM ID

HIG03

Favorite Season

Fall, Spring

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Africa

Favorite Quote

Everyday above ground is a good day.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

11/6/1946

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Pie (Blackberry)

Short Description

Photojournalist Chester Higgins, Jr. (1946 - ) has published his work with the New York Times and a variety of other publications. In addition to his photojournalistic activities, Higgins has published collections of his photographs in book form, and toured with several solo exhibitions of his work.

Employment

Freelance Photographer

New York Times

Favorite Color

Blue, Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Chester Higgins, Jr.'s interview session 1, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of Chester Higgins, Jr.'s interview session 1, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. shares a lesson he learned from artist Romare Bearden

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his maternal ancestry

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes Fairhope, Alabama and how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his step-grandfather's school in New Brockton, Alabama

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his stepfather's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his step-grandfather, Warren Smith

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his step-grandmother's family

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts what inspired his interest in photography

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins describes his photographs of his aunt and uncle

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. explains his great uncle's name

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls picking cotton as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls working in cotton and peanut fields

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Chester Higgins recalls his elementary school experiences

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about the anthem 'Lift Every Voice and Sing'

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls special childhood events

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins describes responses to segregation in the South

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes race relations in his childhood community

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins describes a community leader from his childhood, Mr. Bernest Brooks

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes community leaders in New Brockton, Alabama

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his call to ministry, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his call to ministry and Bible study with his step-grandfather

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts becoming a minister at age ten

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. reflects upon being a minister as a child

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. shares his spiritual philosophy, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. shares his spiritual philosophy, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes writing his sermons

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about politics within African American churches

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes the function of religion in modern society

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s political and religious influence

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his grandfather and Warren Smith High School

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. narrates his photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. narrates his photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Slating of Chester Higgins, Jr.'s interview, session 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts meeting his mentor, P.H. Polk, pt.1

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts meeting his mentor, P.H. Polk, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls his photography lessons with P.H. Polk

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his first camera

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls his internship at Harvard Student Agencies in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his research project at Harvard Student Agencies in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins describes his academic experiences at Tuskegee Institute

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls participating in student protests in Montgomery, Alabama

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about the art of storytelling with photography

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls documenting student protests at Tuskegee Institute

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. remembers his mentors in college

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about publishing his early photography and photographing women

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his experiences as a photographer in New York City

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts meeting Arthur Rothstein of Look magazine

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls learning photography techniques from Arthur Rothstein

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts meeting his editor, Orde Coombs

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins describes his book 'Black Woman'

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins describes his book, 'Drums of Life'

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his book 'Some Time Ago'

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls meeting Romare Bearden

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his process for photographing people

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. remembers his friendship with Romare Bearden

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. remembers Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Al Murray

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Chester Higgins recalls meeting fellow photographers in New York City

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes Cornell Capa

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about his commitment to his craft, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about his commitment to his craft, pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls his hiring as a photographer for the New York Times

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. explains his aim of portraying people positively in his photography

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recounts the lectures he gives at high schools

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about the African diaspora

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about African religions, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 9 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about African religions, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Chester Higgins, Jr. talks about African religions, pt. 3

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his book 'Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,' pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his book 'Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,' pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls the gallery exhibition for 'Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging'

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Chester Higgins, Jr. reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Chester Higgins, Jr. describes his hopes for the African American community

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Chester Higgins, Jr. explains why he does not talk about works in progress

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - Chester Higgins reflects upon being interviewed by The HistoryMakers

DASession

1$2

DATape

2$7

DAStory

4$8

DATitle
Chester Higgins describes his photographs of his aunt and uncle
Chester Higgins, Jr. recalls learning photography techniques from Arthur Rothstein
Transcript
So, there was that hanging on the wall, the blue--the calendars with the blue--$$And it was Christ in Gethsemane [Garden of Gethsemane] and the biblical scripture. So, when I, when I first became aware that the camera could be used to make very positive images of black people I immediately thought back and realized that I had never seen pictures on the walls anywhere of my great aunt Shug [Higgins' paternal great aunt, Shug McGowan Lampley] or my great uncle March Fourth [McGowan]. My mother [Varidee Young Smith] had pictures, but you know she was a professional and the way the professionals like her had their picture made is for each year when the school kids had their picture made they would make pictures of the teachers and the faculty, so that's how she got her picture. And you know I always tell people you know your, your best photographs will always be of things that you know and for me what did I know about my great aunt Shug. I knew that she prayed at night, and I knew she prayed in the morning. I knew that she had a, that she had, that she would wear these aprons you know with one pocket. And back then old people with aprons you know they would, the women, the way they would hold their money as they would take a handkerchief and they would you know fold their handkerchief on a diagonal and then they would take their paper money and they tied it up on one end and they'd take their coins and they'd tie it up on the opposite and they would stick it in their apron pocket. So, these are the two things I knew about my Aunt Shug and when I went to make a picture of my Aunt Shug, I made other pictures, but I looked to make the two pictures that I knew that was her and so there's a picture of my Aunt Shug looking through outside the window at night as she's inside and she's at her bed and she's praying. And then the other picture of my Aunt Shug is her at her front fence with her checkerboards dress and her apron looking at me. You know I, I, to me my Aunt Shug was the sweetest woman that I knew as a, as a, as a pers- as a child as a person. And then my Uncle Fourth, you know, I--my uncle Fourth was, was the guy who was always a doer of things. I remember him, he was--in the summertime they would have like a little baseball team, different guys who played different bases and my Uncle Fourth was sort of like the manager of the team and he's the one who was responsible for bringing to the game the, the catcher's mitt and the covering and, and the bats and extra balls. He had this big sack and just put them all in and walk over and, so I made a couple of pictures of my aunt and Uncle Fourth that was really him, one in his garden and, and another one at home as he got older.$$So--$$But, I picked up the camera because it was a love in my heart that I wanted to because what I felt in my heart about certain subjects that I wanted to photograph, and these were those two subjects.$I realized how great a teacher this man [Arthur Rothstein] was from, you know, that very first few minutes and I wanted to work and study with him and I was in everything that I could do to go out and try to shoot. I hoped that he would have the time to look and could give me criticism and give me direction. So, I came back the next day and we went through this and I said oh my God I learned something else, let me go try this. And that's how it developed sort of within a week. I was at his office [at Look magazine] every day for the whole summer, and at, at some point in just getting you know learning basic stuff. He gave me a list of just, you know, facial expressions or things to look for. Just the vocabulary of photography and just learning all that and, and trying to take each one of those because he said to me you know when you make a picture as a good photographer you're making hundreds of decisions instantaneously. You're making decisions about content, about light, about design, about time of day, about mood, about emotions, all of those things, but the only way you can do that is you have to learn how to make each decision separately first. So, I had this list of maybe about a hundred different, imagine a hundred different possible things that a picture could have in it, and so my, during the summer my ritual of him was each day trying to produce an image that dealt with one specific visual element so that over time as you master all of those different visual elements, your mind sort of locks it in so that when you go make a picture now your mind instantaneously runs through that criteria so that over time within a few weeks I had mastered this whole list so that that became and then so what do I do. I start shooting in Harlem [New York, New York] and in Brooklyn [New York] following black people wherever I can find them in New York [New York], adding to my broad collection of black people in America, but also specifically looking at black women.