Narratives of African American Art and Identity

P.H. Polk

Portrait of Aaron Douglas, c. 1933

Black-and-white photograph

10" x 8"

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Portrait of Aaron Douglas

Portrait photographer P. H. Polk firmly believed in the importance of allowing the personalities of his sitters to shine through in his work. Polk began his career as a student at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, where he studied with black photographer C. M. Battey. Because his race barred his admittance to white photography schools, in 1922-two years after completing his study at Tuskegee-he continued his artistic education through a correspondence course.

Polk did not allow America's racial barriers to deter him from his desire to become a first-rate photographer. He recalled one of the lessons he gained from the course, which he continued to use throughout his career, stating that, "if you look at my pictures, you'll see most of them are from the shadow side. My correspondence course said you can get better details from the shadow side. It helps you leave people near as you can to who they are."

Polk's intimate Portrait of Aaron Douglas exemplifies his use of the shadow side technique. During the thirties, when the photograph was taken, Douglas was considered by such notables as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois to be the leading black artist in the United States. Although Polk, Tuskegee's official photographer, was often called upon to photograph important personalities, his images generally de-emphasized the celebrity status of his sitters in favor of capturing what he described in 1979 as "the picture that I felt within myself." Thus, Polk's Portrait of Aaron Douglas does not focus on Douglas's notoriety as the leading Harlem Renaissance artist; instead it seems to celebrate the quiet demeanor, dignified carriage, soft-spoken intelligence of the artist as a man.   T. F.


David Driskell
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P.H. Polk biography

P.H. Polk on the web

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