P. H. Polk

(1898 - 1984) American


P. H. Polk was born in Bessemer, Alabama, on November 25, 1898, thirty-five years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a young man of eighteen, Mr. Polk enrolled at Tuskegee Institute with the intention of becoming a painter "like Van Gogh or Rembrandt." But Tuskegee Institute's founder, Dr. Booker T. Washington, was concerned about practical education for Negroes and his institution had no place in 1916 for a black Rembrandt. The college Dean gently suggested to Polk that he consider studying house painting instead, explaining that at least he would learn how to mix colors.
The idea did not appeal to the young man who had already decided that he had "an artistic temperament," and when Tuskegee's official photographer, Mr. C. M. Battey, announced at student assembly the next day that anyone possessed of (or by) such a temperament should come to his office in the morning, Polk gathered up his drawings and presented himself for consideration. By the time he left Battey's office, P. H. Polk had decided he would become a photographer.
Polk added to what he learned from Battey with a correspondence course, since no white photography school would accept a black student at that time, and in 1924 he moved to Chicago and began to study with photographer Fred Jensen. He told Polk he had to learn "to read light like you read a newspaper," and, struck by Polk's enthusiasm and determination, Jensen willingly taught his new pupil everything he could about taking pictures.
Polk opened his first studio in Tuskegee in 1927, and in 1928 was appointed to the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute Photography Department, where he served as head of the Department from 1933 to 1938. In 1939, he briefly operated his own studio in Atlanta, but returned to Tuskegee after one year to become the college's official photographer, continuing also to run his own studio.
A series of Mr. Polk's photographs has been published in the Black Photographer's Annual. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in New York; the Washington Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.; the Studio Museum of Harlem; the House of Friendship in the Soviet Union; the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Urban Services Agency in Baltimore. A book of his photographs was published by Nexus Press in 1980 in conjunction with a major exhibition of his work at the Third Floor Gallery of the Forrest Avenue Consortium in Atlanta. He is also the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support his work.
Mr. Polk's love to photography has been at the center of his life for over sixty years. His movement from one place to another, his taking jobs and his decisions to leave them, his anecdotes and memories, all revolve around the axis of his absolute commitment to photography. It was not easy at the beginning of this century for a young black man from Bessemer, Alabama, to realize a dream. To pursue a dream of becoming a professional photographer must have seemed almost foolhardy, but Mr. Polk is not a dabbler who could have contented himself with a few snapshots of his children and grandchildren. Mr. Polk was, and is, interested in recording what he sees around him, and what he sees within his own mind, and in his own heart, and that is what he has done.
Although much of Mr. Polk's work is centered in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and gives a rich, complex, portrait of a time and a place, and a people who are glimpsed only rarely by those who are not close enough to touch them, Mr. Polk is not an anthropologist. He is still the artist he was at eighteen, and when he speaks of making photographs "from the shadow side," he reminds his listener that Rembrandt, his early hero, often painted from those same shadows. Ultimately, it is the artist's imagination, and the artist's eye, more than the race or class of the subjects, that enable these photographs to stand or fall on their own merits, and to touch the viewer so profoundly.
Pearl Cleage Lomax
P. H. Polk--A Portfolio of Eleven Original Photographs in a Signed & Numbered Limited Edition of Sixty Copies & Fifteen Artist Proofs, South Light and The Ohio State University, 1981
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