Growing older, which is commonly associated with medical problems, inactivity and other negative conditions, can also be a time of wisdom, grace and peace. The 15 portraits of elderly people on exhibit at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning focus on the positive aspects of aging.
“What I want is to have people look at my photographs and say, ‘I want to look like that when I’m their age,’” said Chester Higgins Jr., 56, a staff photographer for the New York Times. His exhibit, “Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,” runs through Saturday, April 13th.
The black-and-white portraits are blown up to a dramatic 30 by 40 inches. The faces, wrinkles and all, loom larger than life in the dimly lit exhibit room of the Jamaica Center.
There are obvious differences in the portraits of women and men. Some are black or Caucasian, and others Asian or Native American.
But what truly distinguishes the portraits are the individual expressions on the faces, effectively brought out by Higgins.
One man smiles conservatively, revealing his whimsical nature only through a glimmer in his eyes.
One woman with a turban wrapped neatly around her head appears relaxed and assured, as someone who has lived a long life.
Another uniformed man holds his trumpet loosely as if he enjoys playing the instrument.
The portraits do have one thing in common: white hair. Except for two, the subjects were placed in front of a dark studio background, making their hair especially dramatic.
The contrast successfully accentuates the age of the photographer’s subjects. “The white hair is in your face. I’m not being nice about it; I’m confronting negative images of elderly people.”
To gather his subjects, Higgins first considered anyone he passed on the streets of New York City who had white hair. “Not many people have white hair, so they stick out.”
Of those he found to be over age 70, Higgins also considered their faces, particularly the eyes. He looked for people whose “eyes were connected to their minds. They were fully alert, fully engaged.” After four years he ended up with 400 portraits.
An exhibit featuring 60 of the images was shown at the New-York Historical Society in 2000.
The 15-piece exhibit at the Jamaica Center was produced by the Council of Senior Centers and Services, as part of an outreach program to show that growing older is something positive.
“(CSCS) has the same objective as me,” Higgins said. The organization kept the exhibit small so it could be moved more easily from place to place, and because the project had only a $5,000 budget.
Along with Jamaica Center, CSCS is also showing Elder Grace at the Langston Hughes Public Library in Corona until September.
Higgins’ portraits are the product of about 35 years of experience. He first picked up the camera when he was 21 to take pictures of his great uncle, who eventually lived to be 108.
He grew up in New Brockton, Alabama, with his father who owned a small dry cleaning business and his mother who was a school teacher.
At 24, Higgins moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and has lived there ever since. “If I wanted my pictures on a national stage, I had to be in New York City.”
A few years after coming north, Higgins began taking photographs for the New York Times, where he became known for his portraiture.
His photographs have been shown in over 100 solo exhibitions throughout the country. His last exhibit, “Landscapes of the Soul,” featured women in Africa.
By taking the 400 pictures for Elder Grace, Higgins learned that “people who age well stay involved. They don’t sit and do nothing. Attitude is very important about living.”
While acknowledging that not everything about growing older is positive, Higgins believes that many who have lived long lives possess a deep tranquility and wisdom. He hopes his photographs capture that for the younger generations.
The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning is located at 161-04 Jamaica Avenue. For more information, call 658-7400.