A temporary exhibit at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, focuses on the photography of P.H. Polk, who for more than four decades captured iconic images of life on the Tuskegee University campus as the institution’s official photographer. His photographs — some never before displayed in public — are part of the museum’s newly launched “The Pride of the Swift-growing South: Tuskegee Institute Photography” exhibit.
Polk’s collective body of work — the rights to which the Polk family donated to the university in 2018 — contains more than 3,800 photographs, most of which illuminate the lives of African Americans who attended or taught at then-Tuskegee Institute. Common subjects of his work include portraits of faculty, students, and area residents; campus buildings over the decades; and homecoming parades, athletic events, and other candid images depicting life on campus and in the surrounding Macon County community.
“The majority of the photos we received had never been seen before, outside of his family,” said Tuskegee University archivist Dana Chandler. “This collection represents some of the finest black-and-white images ever produced — by arguably the nation’s greatest African-American photographer.”
Rebecca Bush, curator of history at The Columbus Museum, noted the exhibit has been about two years in the making.
“Taken together, this exhibit spans much of the 20th century and presents a strikingly varied survey of African American life in the rural South,” Bush said. “We’re deeply grateful to the entire Tuskegee University Archives staff for their hospitality and support in making this project a reality.”
The exhibit promises to be a popular attraction the weekend of Saturday, Oct. 13, when Tuskegee Golden Tiger football fans descend on Columbus for the 84th annual Tuskegee Morehouse Classic. The museum’s Saturday and Sunday operating hours will make it convenient for Tuskegee alumni and fans to view the exhibit — especially between the end of Saturday morning’s parade and the 2 p.m. ET kickoff.
Prentice Herman “P.H.” Polk enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in 1916 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 then official photographer, Polk decided he would lean into his interests and pursue photography. In 1924, Polk left Tuskegee for Chicago, where he studied 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 later served as head of the Photography Department from 1933 to 1938, but left for Atlanta for a year in an attempt to open a branch of his photography studio there. He returned to Tuskegee in 1939 as the university’s official photographer — a capacity he served in for four decades before retiring in the early 1980s.
Among Polk’s most widely recognized photographs is a 1941 photograph (right) of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with pilot Charles Anderson, an African American and Tuskegee Institute’s chief flight instructor. The photograph provided much attention for and legitimacy to the newly established program —eventually dubbed the “Tuskegee Airmen” — that trained some 450 black pilots for deployment during World War II.
Polk’s photographs have been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery (Washington, D.C.), the Museum of Natural History (New York), the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), and many other galleries and institutions. In 1980, he received the Black Photographer’s Annual Testimonial Award, and in 1981, he won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He passed away in nearby Tallassee, Alabama, in 1984.
As Georgia’s only art and regional history museum, the Columbus Museum is a free-admission institution that serves more than 55,000 people annually and offers a variety of exhibitions and educational programs for all ages. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, it is a preeminent cultural anchor of the Chattahoochee Valley Region.
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