by Malaika Kambon
“Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take the likeness of Black men without most grossly exaggerating their features. And the reason is obvious: Artists, like all other white persons, have developed a theory dissecting the distinctive features of a Negro’s physiognomy.” – Frederick Douglass, April 7, 1849
Inspired by the New York City premiere of the Thomas Allen Harris’ documentary, “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” which played at the New York Film Festival through Sept. 9, 2014, Flavorwire highlighted P.H. Polk as one of its “10 Essential African-American Photographers.”
Prentice Hall Polk (1898-1985) is one of the world’s quintessential photographers because he captured the honesty, pride and nobility of Afrikan people, during a time in history when portraitures of Afrikan people were typically nothing but caricatures indicative of the Jim Crow laws and of white supremacy.
Polk, deeply disturbed by this, captured the essence and spirit of not only the national and local elite, such as Dr. George Washington Carver, but the working class and poor Afrikan residents in his home state of Alabama. His portraits were vibrant portrayals of Afrikan dignity, pride, perseverance and sensitivity. He captured the reality of Afrikan life: the essences of the lives of “the old characters” he photographed in the rural South, as well as the working and middle classes.
Of his iconic photograph, “The Boss,” created in 1932, he said: “To be portrayed in her own matter-of-factness: confident, hard working, adventuresome, assertive and stern. The pose, at an angle, and her expression, authoritative and firm, are not the result of my usual tactics to encourage a response.
“She wears her own clothes. She is not cloaked in victimization. She is not pitiful; therefore, she is not portrayed in pitiful surroundings. She is not helpless, and she is not cute. Instead she projects notions of independence, and is powerful in appearance, and is, by title, the boss.”[i]
Eminent photography historian Deborah Willis says of “The Boss” that it “is an important image because it’s an image where a woman is taking control of her image, where (she) is looking directly into the camera; there are other images where people always see the negative image of a big Black woman with a wrap on her head as a negative, stereotyped image.
“But here, this is a woman that reverses the stereotype, a woman with her hand on her hip, a woman looking into the camera to say, ‘This is who I am; this is my story as a bread winner. I mean, you could see that she’s in charge of her physical being and possibly her family.”[ii]
Born in 1898 in Bessemer, Alabama the youngest of four children, he studied photography with C.M. Battey at the same Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, that was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Barred as an African from further photographic studies, he completed a correspondence course and opened a studio.
P.H. Polk, who was also the Tuskegee Institute’s official photographer for over four decades, maintained his photography studio in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1939 to his retirement in the early 1980s. From there, though he had traveled to Chicago and different parts of Alabama, he always returned to Tuskegee, becoming the community photographer that everyone depended upon – capturing the diversity, intelligence and sophistication of Afrikan life in his images.
He was responsible for taking the 1941 photo of Eleanor Roosevelt with civilian pilot Alfred Anderson that inspired the formation and the deployment of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II in 1942, though this was not portrayed in the movie of the same name. In the movie, there was a white photographer given this honor. P.H. Polk’s contribution was omitted.
In his early years of photography, Mr. Polk used an Eastman Kodak box camera – with a Graphex single lens. He highly skilled, shot in black and white, and could frame, compose and take a shot in the blink of an eye! He was a master with light and shade, and many of his photographs had a painterly quality to them. He was a past master at getting the desired results for and from his subjects.
“And he never lost that, what I call that desire to achieve an image that had all of the qualities of someone like Rembrandt’s paintings,” says Amalia K. Amaki, art historian. “When he talked about creating a photograph from the dark side, he very much was referencing the fact that when someone like Rembrandt and other baroque painters would begin to paint, they wouldn’t think as most painters did about form and how to develop that form by the relationships of lights to darks. They would always think about how to bring that form out of darkness.
“And Polk, if you look at his photographs, they are sort of derived from that same sensibility … understanding that bringing form out of shadow into light, that this is a very dramatic way of how to technically think about an image.”[iii]
“He could appreciate where light fell,” says the immortal Chester Higgins, photographer for the New York Times newspaper, “and he could appreciate the intensity of light. He would adjust whatever limitations film provided so that it could compensate and take advantage of whatever that situation was.”[iv]
Ms. Amaki continues, “He achieves ‘degrees of darkness’ that are almost pure black. Any photographer can tell you that to have a single image that has completely black areas in it, but also in that same picture plane, you have pure white, that is a black and white photographer’s dream and it is very difficult to achieve. Usually when achieving that deep, deep tone, you lose some of that high resolution of white. But Polk was able to maintain that balance.”[v]
Mr. Polk shot, developed and printed his pictures. With the equipment that he had in that day and time, and considering his achievements, this was nothing short of genius, a miraculous accomplishment.
P.H. Polk, like his contemporary in Harlem, James van der Zee, spoke universally to people about Afrikan people globally – just by focusing intensely upon and thoroughly documenting visually their communities. He brought out the inside compositions, thoughts and emotions of the people whose stories and lives he told with his camera. He brought it all out.
The Black press of the era and area found its images from C.M. Battey and P.H. Polk, with his focus on education and the determination of students’ self-determination to achieve.
And he inspired. During the ‘60s, he documented the Civil Rights Movement and the Tuskegee Institute’s student protest movement – Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, the civil rights leaders who came to the Tuskegee Institute campus. And he mentored many students.
But his most inspired protégé was Chester Higgins Jr. Mr. Higgins’ work invokes the preservation of memory, just as P.H. Polk’s photographs did.
In 1980, Prentice Hall Polk was awarded the Black Photographer’s Annual Testimonial Award. In 1981, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1983, he was a special guest at the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, with the first Afrikan astronaut on board.
It can be said that P.H. Polk came, he saw, he documented the reality of the Afrikan community in Tuskegee, Alabama – which spoke to the volumes of dignity that Afrikan people have always had everywhere on the globe. Mr. Polk enjoyed his work creating, preserving and documenting an important part of Afrikan history.
“The night is beautiful,
So are the faces of my people,
The stars are beautiful,
So are the eyes of my people,
Beautiful also is the sun,
Beautiful also are the souls of my people.”[vi]
– Langston Hughes
P.H. Polk died on Dec. 29, 1984, at the age of 86. His favorite saying was: “All of the great pictures are accidents. You struggle and struggle and try to focus, but all of the great pictures are accidents.”
Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at email@example.com.
[ii] Deborah Willis, “Moments of Dignity,” 2002; produced by Dwight Cameron, narrated by Anoa Monsho
[iii] Amalia K. Amaki, ibid
[iv] Chester Higgins Jr., ibid
[v] Op cit “Moments of Dignity”
[vi] Cynthia Polk-Allen, ibid