P. H. Polk Photographs Capture Ordinary to Extraordinary in Tuskegee

To Make a Picture: The Photography of P. H. Polk from the Paul R. Jones Collection, on exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art open through May 23, explores the life’s work of Prentice Herman (P. H.) Polk (1898-1985). Polk was a Bessemer, Alabama native who became one of the most important African-American photographers of the 20th century. The 28 silver gelatin photographic prints in this exhibition are from the renowned Paul R. Jones collection of African-American art. To Make a Picture coincides with Black History Month and will be the second installation in the Museum’s gallery dedicated to African-American art.
From 1939 to1984, Polk was the official photographer of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. A historically black university, the Tuskegee campus today is designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

At Tuskegee, Polk chronicled campus life, capturing scenes of social, historical, and artistic significance and recording for posterity images of Tuskegee President Booker T. Washington, professor George Washington Carver, the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen, Eleanor Roosevelt (an early supporter of the Institute), boxing legend Joe Louis, renowned bass-baritone and activist for social justice Paul Robeson, and many other prominent individuals. Many of his most famous pictures are of Tuskegee locals to whom he referred as “Old Characters.”

“Polk’s images are relevant to African-Americans not only in Alabama, but nationally,” says Graham Boettcher, PhD, William Carey Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Whether his lens focused on a famous person or a poor sharecropper, Polk depicted all his subjects with equal dignity and humanity, finding beauty in all of his subjects.”

A native of Bessemer, Alabama, the Atlanta entrepreneur Paul R. Jones is one of the nation’s foremost collectors of the work of African-American artists. In 2001, he donated a substantial portion of his important collection to the University of Delaware an, in 2008, gave more than 1,700 works of art to the University of Alabama.

Works by Polk and other photographers are shown regularly in its Contemporary and American galleries, but this is the first exhibition the Museum has devoted exclusively to Polk since 1983. The guest curator of this exhibition is Amalia K. Amaki, Ph.D., Professor of Art History, University of Alabama, and curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection in Atlanta, Georgia.

“The Museum is committed to exhibiting the work of significant Alabama artists, as well as important African-American artists. P. H. Polk is both,” says Gail Andrews, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. “We are delighted to show these extraordinary photographs from Paul Jones’s unparalleled collection of works by African-American artists.”

The Birmingham Museum of Art gratefully acknowledges Paul R. Jones for his generous loans to this exhibition and also appreciates loans of works of art by Patrick Cather, Ann B. Lambert, and Robert R. Bairnsfather. General exhibition support is provided by the City of Birmingham and the Alabama State Council on the Arts, with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.