When photojournalist Chester Higgins Jr. was a college student in the late 1960s, ventilating his generational anger against misinterpretations of black life, an older black set him on a more constructive course.
"A teacher of mine told me the story of a man who used to read a bedtime story to his son about a man and a lion. The man always won and his son asked how was that so, since the lion was king of the jungle. And the father said the lion will win when he writes his own book," recalled Higgins.
In the past decade Higgins turned that parable into a personal creed. Now 34, a full-time newspaper photographer and a part-time college instructor, Higgins has produced three books that attempt to present a more realistic image of blacks than the ones he found.
In his latest effort, "Some Time Ago," Higgins has compiled a century of photographs of blacks, with Orde Coombs providing the text. Though he has had educational television shows done on his own work and has exhibited in major museums and photographed heads-of-state, Higgins did not include any of his own photos in the book. But, he said, submerging his jet-setting ego was an easy pleasure. "It helped my fantasy, the fantasy of science fiction, the time machine. I am concerned about how other people adapted in other times. I would enjoy looking at myself in the time of Greece and Rome," said Higgins, whose thin face ends in a braided point of a beard, his casual dress overwhelmed by a brass-plate studded vest from Morocco. He continued, stirring some pre-packaged English tea, "Every piece of art has a glance back. You are taken through the eyes of the witness, the artist. You experience the world of 'Some Time Ago' because someone else was there."
The book's exploration of black life begins in 1850. Its 200 photographs include Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist who knew the whip of slavery, and also "Gordon," whose back has thick tread marks -- the legacy of the lash. There are women of national impact, such as singer Marian Anderson and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and, also, an unnamed woman, with swollen, tired eyes, jauntily standing by her roadster. There's W.C. Handy at a birthday party, and the poetic communication between a barber and his customer. There are chain gangs and youngsters saying prayers. The photographers include the famous -- such as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans and James Van DerZee -- as well as others whose names went unrecorded.
The search for this portable archive took four years. Higgins sifted through 40,000 images, copying 3,000 and narrowing the selections down to 200. The major repositories, such as the Library of Congress and the Schomburg Collection, were tapped. And so were dozens of cigar boxes, trunks and file cabinets. Along the way Higgins discovered the names of 30 black photographers that were new to him, but often their work had been destroyed by history-consciousless relatives or was unreproducible.
"The old black folks thought my request was amusing," said Higgins. "One lady called in her neighbors to look at me looking in her trunk. The neighbors laughed and shook their heads, saying, 'this boy has nothing better to do with his time.'" But that time was profitable. A chance conversation with a woman in Boston prompted a letter to her grandmother in Colorado and a soft, spiritual photograph of an American Indian ancestor found its place in the collection.
Higgins was interested in the character of the people as captured by the photographs, as well as the artistic merit of the photos. "In the early ones, there's more of a sense of where do you fit in. They didn't have control but they had to accept responsibility. They developed an infrastructure, they could see themselves clearly. By the 1930s people declared their space differently, their relationship to the government was different, they expected too much from the government, not enough from themselves, and the result is disappointment," he explained.
Though Higgins has now become an authority on the photographic history of blacks, his career in photography grew out of an almost accidental pastime. As a child in New Brockton, Ala., Higgins was interested in biology and electricity. By the time he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, he was immersed in business management and sociology. Yet when he was a junior and touring college campuses, he thought the protest of the black students deserved documentation. He bought his first camera that summer of 1968. That next year while he was showing some photos to magazine editors in New York, he met Arthur Rothstein, then director of photography for Look magazine. Rothstein became a mentor and Higgins quickly discovered the masters, Alfred Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson and Gordon Parks, and adopted their philosophies. Within a year, he published his first book, "Black Women."
In addition to books, record covers, and teaching, Higgins works full-time at The New York Times. He did the Cabinet photo of former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and has edited a forthcoming book on Martin Luther King Jr.
Higgins says his next book, "As Is," conveys his artistic philosophy. "It's the condition of the moment. Photographs often deal with the individual image, that's all right, but it's finger exercises. You have to do the symphony," he explained. "My ambition is to be clear about the condition, the fact that the cloud is behind that building, that the sun and light are seen in two different colors, and why."
His success, he said, has not shielded him from incidents of racism. "I go into places and they ask me if I am the delivery boy. But I try to establish one-to-one relationships. I don't come off from any false separation. If a man can't talk to me sensibly, then I think less of him, not of me," said Higgins."The one thing I learned from 'Some Time Ago' was that I do fit into the continuum. My sense of self is well-grounded."