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The grace of aging at Jamaica Center

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“Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,” the exhibit of photos of beautiful older people by Chester Higgins Jr., was exhibited previously at the New York Historical Society. The new exhibit at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning is different in that, with the exception of a happily embracing George and Lettice Winsor, the photos are of individual faces shot against a black backdrop. Also, unlike the previous exhibit, not every subject is an African American.

But the dozen or so photos on the wall of JCAL’s gallery are a small part of Higgins’ work. In JCAL’s auditorium the photographer gave a spirited presentation Friday, March 15, of other photos of elders that he’d taken since he began photographing in 1967.

Higgins was born in a small town in Alabama where elders were respected. When he moved to the city he was disturbed to see the disrespect with which elders were regarded and the lack of positive images of aging, and set about to correct this.

Higgins has four criteria for his portraits: The person must be over 70, have white hair, bear “a countenance of dignity” and “their eyes had to be connected to their minds.”

He took the photos wherever the subject was most comfortable, whether it was on the street, in his studio, at their home or at their church or place of business. The first photograph he showed that evening was of his great aunt Shug, a dignified, straight-backed lady in her garden. Though she is wearing a plain dress and an apron, she has on lovely dangling earrings, perhaps her one nod to vanity. Her portrait is not in the gallery, though the portrait of her brother, March Forth (his real name) is. There was a later photo of Aunt Shug praying, shot between the panes of her bedroom window.

Higgins also likes wrinkles, and his faces have plenty of them. To Higgins, wrinkles, especially crow’s feet, indicate that the person likes to smile a lot. He told the story of one of his subjects, an illustrator who disliked the wrinkles on her hands till her friends saw her photograph, which hangs in the 42nd street and 6th Avenue subway station, and were impressed by it.

There was a photo of a mother and daughter, both white-haired. The daughter was what Higgins calls a “preemie,” or someone whose hair has gone prematurely white and for whom he’d make an exception to his rule of no one under 70. This portrait was joined by one of a church lady in an ornate toque with just a bit of her white hair peeking from under the brim. There was also a solemn portrait of Anthony Perkins (who Higgins called his “Moses”), with his white, antediluvian beard and sorrowful, far-seeing eyes. and Maria Ortiz, a woman with seven sons, whose peaceful face is on the cover of Higgins’ book.

A few of Higgins’ shots are of hands, and he showed the homely hands of a weaver. “There was a story in all of those lines,” he said.

Another woman cups her face in her hands, her fingers filled with bright, chunky rings. There was a sad looking woman from Abyssinian Baptist church and a woman with a pure, sparkling white mane framing a very dark, joyous face. Higgins admitted he rearranged the woman’s beautiful hair, something he rarely does with his subjects.

He also photographed two sisters who loved to talk and interrupt each other. Higgins said this photo was the one time “when both of their mouths were closed at the same time.” There was a woman who teaches children to dance at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem; a Brazilian woman from Bahia; a woman with her white hair ruffled by the wind; and a shot of hands gripping a pocketbook and some strips of palm from a Palm Sunday service.

Along with average people, Higgins showed portraits of the famous, including Nelson Mandela a couple of months after he was released from prison, whose eyes, in Higgins’ study of him, were definitely connected to his mind. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sits in complete repose and elegance despite having to deal with maniacs of all stripes every day of his working life - Annan was another preemie Higgins photographed because of his white hair.

There was the Queen Mother of the Ashantis and Dr. John Henrik Clark, whose powerful mind Higgins still captured despite his blindness. There was the then-96-year-old Abe Hirschfeld; Senior U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley, with her bright shining eyes; a lively Frances Sternhagen; the lithe Monica Smith in her office; Trude Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt's private secretary in her Greenwich Village apartment; and Eleanor Guggenheim and Marcella Maxwell of Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York.

Higgins’ few color photos were of elderly religious leaders who’d gathered for a summit in New York, and included a rabbi, a Japanese Shinto priest, a Native American chief and an Ashanti Elder. Higgins’ other color series was of a man and his sweet-faced wife. The slide show ended, fittingly, with a shot of two peaceful clasped hands.

“Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging” was presented by the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults Inc. and the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York. It will be at the center at 161st Street and Jamaica Avenue through April 13.

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