Three shows offer historic views of African-American life

Historically, figurative artists have played an important role in defining, if not shaping, the identity of their subjects. That is definitely the case for two 20th-century African-American photographers and a printmaker whose work is on view in Atlanta this fall. In their photographs, P.H. Polk and Ernest Withers recorded the spirit and image of African-American life at a pivotal moment in history, and Wilmer Jennings worked through printmaking to describe parallel observations of people, their environment and social issues.

Through These Eyes: The Photographs of P.H. Polk at Spelman College is a classic photography show. The images on view were taken in the 1930s and '40s by the late Prentice Herman Polk (1898-1984), a photography instructor and official photographer at Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) in Macon County, Alabama.

Amalia Amaki, a former Atlantan who now teaches at the University of Delaware, gathered the works for the traveling exhibition from the Paul R. Jones Collection. Jones, an Atlanta-based African-American collector, recently gave most of his 1,000-piece collection of paintings, photographs and sculptures to that institution. Like Polk, Jones is a native of Bessemer, Ala. He met the photographer and began acquiring his work in the late 1970s.

The black-and-white photographs in the exhibition present a perspective of African-American culture in the deep South that is more poetic than documentary. Portraits of beautiful co-eds, black educators, the photographer's elegant wife and photogenic sons segue to group shots of kids playing basketball outdoors, graduation day and formal weddings. The most dramatic artistry is seen in the portraits where Polk manipulated light and shadow to create psychological studies of his subjects.

Another body of Polk's work is even more painterly than those Rembrandtesque photos. "Cotton Picking" (1937-43) might well be a modern African-American version of Millet's "The Gleaners." The couple bent low over their work in the field appears as iconic figures. So do individuals in a series he called "Old Characters." The laborers that he pictured in rural settings could be actors from a play. "The Boss," from 1932, was one of Polk's best-selling photos. In headscarf, flowered top, worn sweater and gingham apron, the imposing woman stands with her hands on her hips, looking directly at the camera. She communicates a force and tenacity that demands respect, if not submission.

There are cameos, too, of African-Americans with star power — Lena Horne, Louis Farrakhan, W.C. Hardy, Mohammed Ali and Joe Lewis — who came to Tuskegee for special events. Two walls of photos chronicle the life and work of emblematic scientist George Washington Carver. Through These Eyes creates a striking, often intimate profile of both the photographer and the people he knew best.

At the High Museum downtown, Ernest Withers takes up history where Polk left off, with a distinctly public, activist style. Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers records poignant moments in the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s through the 1960s. In the '50s, Withers also photographed baseball players of the Diamond League, including Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. And he caught early appearances of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin in Memphis. On First Thursday Art Walks downtown, his exhibition has occasioned the appearance of local Civil Rights leaders and Elvis impersonators. Dec. 6 will bring former members of the African-American baseball league together with the photographer himself for two book signings.

A third African-American artist takes the stage in Pressing on: The Graphic Art of Wilmer Jennings at the Clark Atlanta University Galleries this fall. Prints by the late Jennings, an Atlanta-born artist who studied art at Morehouse College under Hale Woodruff, reveal that Jennings shared the same interest as Polk in describing African-American characters from everyday life.

In the 1930s and '40s, the printmaker, who completed his mastery of the medium at the Rhode Island School of Design, illustrated both urban and rural scenes, often depicting relations between blacks and whites. Jennings' ballet image has its parallel in Polk's photo of a harpist. His plowmen are pictured in the same stylized countryside that surrounds the Alabama photographer's farm workers. Jennings added industrial settings in his etchings and wood-cuts. One triptych (two trial proofs and an etching) depicts ironworkers in a dark, almost mystical setting. The artist's elegy to the working class, a tribute to their uncommon strength, foretold the future power of the ordinary activities described in Ernest Withers' reportage 10 years later.

The three shows illustrate the development of the individual artists while reflecting dimensions of African-American culture and history that otherwise would have gone unrecorded. Together, they show how some black artists began to address cultural and social inequities well before mainstream social commentary began to flood American contemporary art.

Through These Eyes: The Photographs of P.H. Polk through April 12 at Spelman College, 350 Spelman Lane. 404-223-1482. Conversation with collector Paul Jones and cultural historian Richard Long will be held Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. Tues-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. noon-4 p.m. Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers through Jan. 26 at the High Museum Photography and Folk Art Gallery, 133 Peachtree St. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; first Thurs. of the month 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. 404-733-HIGH. First Thursday Art Walk, Dec. 6 5-8 p.m. Pressing on: The Graphic Art of Wilmer Jennings through December at Clark Atlanta University, 223 James P. Brawley Drive. Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Sat. noon-4 p.m. 404-880-8671.??