Posted on 04/27/2013

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African American Man
Prentice Herman Polk aka P.H. Polk
Taught by famed photographer C.M. Battey of Tuskegee Institu

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P.H. Polk

P.H. Polk
Polk's images of Southern life from the dignitaries who visited Tuskegee, and the middle-class African Americans who frequented his private studio, to the farmers and laborers who worked the cotton fields of rural Macon County exemplify the photographer's keen ability for telling a riveting human story through the camera's eye.

[b.1898 - d.1984]

Prentice Herman Polk was born in 1898 in Bessemer, Alabama, the son of a mine worker and a seamstress. Christine, Polk's mother, sent him to boarding school shortly after his father's death in 1908 because of her belief that, with an education, he would be able to surpass his humble beginnings.

In 1916, Polk enrolled in Tuskegee Institute, the most prominent African American Normal and Industrial School of the South, founded by Booker T Washington in 1881.

Polk studied photography under C.M. Battey at Tuskegee, but before receiving a degree, left to start a career in Chicago. While there, he continued to take correspondence courses in photography while apprenticed to Fred Jensen. In 1927, he returned to Tuskegee and opened a private portrait studio.

Polk was appointed to the faculty of the institute in 1928 and five years later was named chairperson of the Photography Department. He remained on staff at Tuskegee as the University Photographer until his death in 1984. During his years there, he was fortunate enough to meet, and photograph, such influential people as George Washington Carver, W.C. Handy, Paul Robeson, Will Rogers, Joe Louis, Henry Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Polk also ventured outside the university community in search of subjects and found Macon County to be full of possibilities. His portraits of local sharecroppers and agricultural workers documented the harsh conditions endured by many African Americans in the South, while his studio portraits of middle-class families, both black and white, present the possibilities of the American Dream. Polk simultaneously showed the dignity of his subjects, regardless of race or social status, while also capturing an intimate glimpse of their lives.
In her essay about Polk, Pearl Cleage Lomax wrote: He would take our pictures and let us see that those who said we were invisible were lying. That those who said we were ugly were lying. That those who claimed we were less than human were lying. That those who said we did not love each other, and marry, and produce children, and suffer, and grow old were lying…[He] would let us bloom in the safe zone before his camera, and we saw ourselves differently through his lenses. We saw ourselves shining in all our specificity. In all our generalities. In all our terrible humanness. We saw ourselves just shine.

Beth Thomas, University of Delaware

For anyone interested at the link you'll find a 53 minute documentary on the life of P.H. Polk titled, “Moments of Dignity” which was produced by Dwight Cammeron for The University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio. Narrated by Polk's granddaughter, Anoa Monsho. www.chesterhiggins.com/mentors/p_h_polk/video.html
4 years ago.