Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
August 7, 1998

Exhibit chronicles Carver's time at Tuskegee

by Marilyn Vaughan, University Museums

Two gifted African Americans -- a photographer and a scientist -- crossed paths in the first half of this century, resulting in a rare portfolio of photographs that provides a window into both their worlds. These photographs are on display in the Brunnier Art Museum from Aug. 25 through Jan. 3, 1999.

The ISU community is invited to a reception that will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, in the Brunnier Art Museum.

P.H. Polk captured George Washington Carver on film during their joint time at Tuskegee Institute (now University) from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Carver was Polk's favorite subject; more than 40 of the 118 images in this exhibit focus on this great scientist, the first African American to graduate from Iowa State. The images show Carver conducting experiments, surveying crop conditions, lecturing students and pursuing leisure activities.

"P.H. Polk's photographs provide an extraordinary vehicle for communicating the truth and legend of this charismatic and renowned figure," said Belena Chapp, director of museums for the University of Delaware, where the photographs were first exhibited. Chapp and her staff organized the show to celebrate the centennial of Polk's birth this year.

Prentice Herman Polk was employed at Tuskegee for 56 years, first as a teacher and then as head of photography and the school's official photographer. He died in 1984.

Carver went to Tuskegee in 1896 from Iowa State, where he received his master's and doctorate degrees. Despite attractive offers from private industry, Carver elected to stay at Tuskegee until his death in 1943 because he felt obligated to his students. During his prolific career, he developed new crops, many related to peanuts, that bettered the lives of Southern farmers.

Aside from Carver, Polk photographed other well-known figures during his era, including Will Rogers, Joe Louis, Henry Ford and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, all of which are in this exhibition. His image of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sharing the copilot seat with a Tuskegee Airman served as catalyst for racial integration of the armed forces. He also ventured outside Tuskegee to document the harsh living conditions of local sharecroppers and to create studio portraits of middle class families, both black and white.

Paul R. Jones of Atlanta, Georgia, lent more than 100 photographs, which form the bulk of the exhibition. P.H. Polk family members and the Tuskegee University Archives also provided photographs.

In addition to the photographs, the Brunnier Art Museum is displaying plant samples collected and mounted by Carver during his time as a student at Iowa State and sponsoring educational programs throughout the year.

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