Polk portraits show black life, photographic achievement


January 14, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Photographer Prentice Hall Polk, who died in 1985, spent most of his 87 years at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Like James Van Der Zee in New York, Polk recorded the middle-class blacks of his time and place, in such works as portraits, wedding pictures, photos of activities at Tuskegee. But he also recorded the life of the poor rural workers and sharecroppers of his area, in photographs such as " 'Spinning Wheel', Macon County, Alabama" (1927), "The Pipe Smoker" (1932) and "The Boss" (1932).

He lived in relative obscurity for most of his life, but began to be more widely known in the 1970s and especially after a 1980 monograph and a subsequent traveling show. Now a new touring show, "P. H. Polk: Southern Photographer," organized by the Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta, is appearing at the Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (through March 10).

Its approximately 70 images consist primarily of studio portraits, many of them against the kind of scenic backdrop that was popular at the time. While they provide a valuable record of the people who sat for them, they are more interesting to the contemporary viewer as a record of Polk's achievement as a photographer.

His was the work of a portraitist especially good with effects of light and dark. But while there is a technical consistency in these photographs (which are not vintage prints but were produced in 1978 under Polk's supervision), there is a wide variance in the responses they evoke.

To put it simply, when Polk was (apparently) interested -- and he was most often interested in women and children -- he was at his best. His "Mildred Hanson Baker" (1937), "Prentice H. Polk, Jr." (1929) and "Robert R. Moton, III" (1946) are portraits of remarkable sympathy. "Margaret Blanche Polk" (1946), the best work in the show, is beautiful both in its composition and its lighting. Other works, such as "George Moore" (1932), are fine character studies.

Polk was not always up to this level. When (one senses) he was less inspired, there is less to respond to as a result. One wonders why some of the photos here were included -- for instance the two group photos "Alpha Phi Gamma", (1936 and 1938) -- and why more of his rural work was not included. "Spinning Wheel," "The Boss," "'Cabin,' Macon County, Alabama" (1927) and the few others here are evocative enough to make us wish for more.

So Polk would perhaps have been better served by a somewhat different selection of his work. But what we have is a valuable presentation of a photographer who should have been better known in his own time.

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