P. H. Polk
Herman Polk was the youngest of four children born to miner Jacob Prentice Polk and his wife Christine Romelia Ward, a seamstress. Jacob died when Herman was 11, just as he entered the Hard School to begin his formal education. In 1911 Polk went to the Tuggle Institute in Birmingham as a boarding student. He left school two years later to work alongside his mother at William Freeman's tailoring shop.
In 1916 Polk added his father's middle name to his own and enrolled in evening classes at what was then the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. His ambition was to to study art, but he soon learned that founder Booker T. Washington had made no provision for non-"practical" instruction at the institute. He rejected a suggestion to take courses in house painting, and, in his second year became the third student to enroll in the institute's newly-created photography program, led by Cornelius Battey. He was also a leader in the school band.
Polk left Tuskegee in 1920 to work in a shipyard in Mobile County, but continued to study photography by taking correspondence courses which encouraged him to study how light is used to build up form in painted masterpieces. After completing the course he moved to Chicago, Illinois to join his mother and sisters there. He worked as a painter for the Pullman Palace Car Company during the day and for the telephone company in the evenings, but still found time to apprentice himself to white portrait photographer Fred A. Jensen.
Polk married Margaret Blanche Thompson of Brunswick, Georgia in January 1926. Over the course of the next year he began going door to door seeking to find his own portrait clients. Not having much success and dreading the onset of another midwestern winter he moved with his wife and newborn son, Prentice, back to Tuskegee where opened his own "Polk's Studio". Joining the faculty in 1927, he assisted Leonard Hyman, who had succeeded Battey as head of the photography division.
In 1933 Polk was promoted to succeed Hyman as head instructor. He resigned in 1938 to open a studio in Atlanta, Georgia. He won three awards at the Southeastern Photographer's Convention held there that year. He returned to Tuskegee in 1939 to accept the position of official campus photographer. During his tenure on the faculty, Polk mentored countless aspiring photographers, including Charles Lang, Chris McNair, Frank Godden, Albert Carter, and Chester Higgins, Jr.
Over the course of his career he made portraits of nearly all the faculty members and administrators and their families as well as the innumerable visitors to the campus, both humble and esteemed. He went out of his way to capture photographs of laborers and field hands for his "Old Characters" series even as he posed wealthy ladies in furs and jewels for glamorous portraits in his studio. He photographed Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver over 500 times and also photographed the Tuskegee Airmen that trained near the institute for flying missions in World War II. His 1932 image, entitled "The Boss", shows an authoritative female farm worker whom he discovered setting up a produce stand near campus. She stands proudly in her everyday clothes, defying the viewer to dismiss her headscarf and apron as comical or picturesque, like the commercial portraits of "black mammies". The breadth and quality of Polk's work led some to label him a "Southern Van Der Zee" (for the Harlem renaissance documentarian James Van Der Zee.)
Polk remained a fixture on Tuskegee's campus for the rest of his life. He continued to develop his artistic capabilities and even went to Winona, Indiana to take a 7-week professional development course. During the Civil Rights Movement he photographed visiting movement leaders as well as campus protests and the Selma to Montgomery March. A selection of his photographs was exhibited at the New York City Museum of Natural History in 1974. Over the next few years his work was also shown at the Washington Gallery of Photography in Washington D. C. and the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York. Some of Polk's photographs traveled in a group exhibition that made stops in the Soviet Union and Nigeria.
In the early 1980s, while collector Paul R. Jones was visiting Tuskegee to assist president Benjamin Payton with development efforts, he befriended the photographer. Jones purchased more than a hundred of Polk's photographs and instigated the publication of a monograph by Atlanta's Nexus Contemporary Art Center. In 1981 he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and an exhibition of his work was mounted at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington D. C. Polk gave a lecture on his work at the International Center of Photography in New York that same year. The Birmingham Museum of Art prepared a solo exhibition in 1983.
- P. H. Polk Photographs (1980) Atlanta, Georgia: Nexus Press
- Weeks, Edward F. (1983) P. H. Polk. Birmingham: Birmingham Museum of Art
- Higgins, Chester Jr (December 1998) "P. H. Polk and me." The New Crisis
- Amaki, Amalia (2004) "Hidden Messages in the Photographs of P. H. Polk" in A Century of African American Art: The Paul R. Jones Collection. Rutgers University Press ISBN 0813534569
- "To Make a Picture: The Photography of P. H. Polk from the Paul R. Jones Collection" exhibit description (2010) Birmingham Museum of Art