Prentice Hall Polk The Boss
Medium Silver print
Mount on original mount
Photo Date 1932 Print Date 1932
Dimensions 9-5/16 x 7-5/8 in. (237 x 194 mm)
Photo Country United States (USA)
Photographer Country United States (USA)
Contact Alex Novak and Marthe Smith
About This Image
Signed in ink on the recto of the photograph, which is a matte silver print. There is a copy in the Detroit Institute of Art.
Prentice Hall Polk (1898-1985) is one of the world’s quintessential photographers because he captured the honesty, pride and nobility of African people, during a time in history when portraitures of Afrikan people were typically nothing but caricatures indicative of the Jim Crow laws and of white supremacy.
Polk, deeply disturbed by this, captured the essence and spirit of not only the national and local elite, such as Dr. George Washington Carver, but the working class and poor Afrikan residents in his home state of Alabama. His portraits were vibrant portrayals of African dignity, pride, perseverance and sensitivity. He captured the reality of African life: the essences of the lives of “the old characters” he photographed in the rural South, as well as the working and middle classes.
Of his iconic photograph, “The Boss,” created in 1932, he said: "To be portrayed in her own matter-of-factness: confident, hard working, adventuresome, assertive and stern. The pose, at an angle, and her expression, authoritative and firm, are not the result of my usual tactics to encourage a response.
"She wears her own clothes. She is not cloaked in victimization. She is not pitiful; therefore, she is not portrayed in pitiful surroundings. She is not helpless, and she is not cute. Instead she projects notions of independence, and is powerful in appearance, and is, by title, the boss."
Born in 1898 in Bessemer, Alabama the youngest of four children, he studied photography with C.M. Battey at the same Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, AL, that was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Barred as an African from further photographic studies, he completed a correspondence course and opened a studio.
P.H. Polk, who was also the Tuskegee Institute’s official photographer for over four decades, maintained his photography studio in Tuskegee, AL, from 1939 to his retirement in the early 1980s. From there, though he had traveled to Chicago and different parts of Alabama, he always returned to Tuskegee, becoming the community photographer that everyone depended upon – capturing the diversity, intelligence and sophistication of African life in his images.
Polk died on Dec. 29, 1984, at the age of 86. His favorite saying was: "All of the great pictures are accidents. You struggle and struggle and try to focus, but all of the great pictures are accidents."