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A new photography exhibit featuring the life’s work of P.H. Polk — one of the most influential photographers of his time — provides a visual perspective of early 20th-century life on the Tuskegee University campus and surrounding community.
Tuskegee University archivist Dana Chandler said much of Polk’s work was centered around Tuskegee Institute, and celebrated family life, national and local elite individuals, and specific events occurring on campus.
“Polk’s work was well known throughout the world; however, little was known about his relevancy and legacy to our campus,” he noted. “Polk studied how to use light and developed photographic techniques that others had never seen before.”
Recently, Polk’s family donated to Tuskegee the photographer’s personal collection, including the total copyright for more than 3,800 of his images.
“The majority of the photos we received had never been seen before, outside of his family,” Chandler commented. “This collection represents some of the finest black-and-white images ever produced — by arguably the greatest African-American photographer.”
Prentice “P.H.” Polk enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in the early 1920s with the intention of becoming an artist; however, the institute’s then-president, Robert R. Moton, was more concerned with Polk receiving an education rather than focusing on the arts. This idea did not sit well with Polk, and after talking with a college dean and discovering the opportunity to work beside C.M. Battey, Tuskegee’s official photographer, Polk decided he would lean into his interests and pursue photography.
Because there was not a school at the time where Polk could study his passion, he eventually moved to Chicago to study under photographer Fred Jensen.
In 1927, when Polk returned to Tuskegee to open his first studio, he accepted a faculty position in the institute’s Photography Department. He was appointed the school’s official photographer beginning in 1929, and later served as head of the Photography Department from 1933 to 1938.
Through a generous grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, University Archives has been able to process the collection and digitize all of the materials received.
“This took almost a year to accomplish –– through further support from the university’s administration under then-interim president, Dr. Charlotte P. Morris, we were able to place 25 of the most significant images on display in the Kellogg Conference Center,” Chandler added. “Each one of his photographs highlights his vivid artistic eye.”
The collection currently is open to visitors without and appointment outside of the ballroom of the university’s Kellogg Conference Center. To learn more about P.H. Polk and his works, visit http://archive.tuskegee.edu/archive.
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