University Gallery Features Influential African American Photographer

A black and white photo of the Tuskegee Airwomen with a plane.
P.H. Polk’s iconic photo of the Tuskegee Airwomen.

From the February 2020 Desktop News | The University Gallery is celebrating the legacy of Alabama-born photographer P.H. Polk with an exhibit featuring enlarged and reproduced versions of his original works.

Polk, one of the first African American photographers to gain national acclaim, was known for shooting his subjects in a strong shadow with sharp detail without compromising their integrity. His subjects include everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Langston Hughes to the working-classes families who lived in the rural areas just miles from his studio at the Tuskegee Institute.

“He captured the essence and spirit of African Americans conveying dignity, perseverance, and his unflinching resolve to depict the humanity of his subjects,” said Daniel White, Director of the Paul R. Jones Museum and the University Gallery. “It’s important we put into context that Polk was photographing during segregation and Jim Crow, which depicted African Americans in negative stereotypes, or caricatures. Through Polk’s lens, he elevated his subjects above these perceptions, whether they were of national importance, working class, middle class elites, or a group he fondly referred to as his ‘old characters.’ While Polk was earning a living through his photography and teaching at Tuskegee, he also presented a viewpoint that challenged and confronted the common stereotypes and depictions of African-Americans.”

Although he started out as a painter, Polk chose to study photography at the then-Tuskegee Institute after a meeting with the school’s campus photographer in 1916. Over a decade later, he opened his own photography studio at the Institute, and joined its photography department’s faculty, where he taught until 1938. In 1940, he began to serve as the college’s official photographer, while still running his own studio.

Over the course of the next several decades, Polk became one of the most prominent photographers in America. While he photographed a wide range of subjects, some of his most famous images are of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II. Many of his photographs are still lauded as some of the best black-and-white photography ever produced.

The exhibit, “Unframed Images,” is made possible by a partnership between UA, Tuskegee University, Mississippi State University, and the Southern Literary Trail. It features a selection of images from the P.H. Polk Photography Collection at Tuskegee University, which contains over 3,800 photographs.

See the exhibit at the First Friday opening reception this Friday, February 7 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., or on weekdays through February 28.

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