The Sweet and Low-Down Photography of Jim Higgins

By  |  February 29, 2012

 

“Self-Portrait” by Jim Higgins. Courtesy of Yalo Studio, Water Valley, Mississippi.

On a kitchen wall in Oxford, Mississippi, there is a growth chart—a skinny ladder of pencil marks and names recording the heights of dozens of random family and friends. The highest notch, off the wood molding and onto the plaster, is marked “Dave Bastard” for Dave Colvin, the giant drummer for The Heartless Bastards. The lowest notch, at 3'10", reads, “Higgins 1/7/06.” James Tolliver Higgins made that mark himself. Not even average height on his feet, this is how short he was in his wheelchair, and how darkly funny he could be. He died May 24, 2009, leaving behind piles of photographs, letters, and friends who saw him as a kind of folk hero.

Higgins came to Oxford from his native Florida where he had been studying writing with Padgett Powell. His work was said to be promising. When Powell felt he’d shown Higgins all he could, he sent him to Barry Hannah for writing and to Square Books for sustenance—while “his genius matures,” Powell said. 

“Avon Pacman” by Jim Higgins. Courtesy of Yalo Studio, Water Valley, Mississippi.

Higgins quickly became a popular guy on the Square. Handsome and charming, his wit, perception, and senses were sharp, sharp, sharp. It’s said that people with acute physical limitations compensate—other abilities become more finely honed. And it’s true that Higgins seemed to notice things others didn’t, and in greater detail, and he complained often and bitterly that things “tasted like ass” or “smelled like sour pussy” or “dead hobo.” He was so “secretly wicked,” as Padgett Powell put it, and so irreverently entertaining, that John Grisham used to ask for Higgins to be on the night crew helping him get through his task of signing mountains of books for stock.

At some point, writing seemed too much of a racket or a rat race for Higgins, and he turned more seriously to photography, an interest since high school. He still had mobility, although he was increasingly unsteady on his feet, and managing a stick and a camera became a pain in the ass.

Preferring to think of his physical condition (caused by cancer and its treatment as an infant) as just some kind of cosmic thwart, Higgins refused any kind of assistance or advantages, or a wheelchair. If you suggested such things, he might yell at you or poke you with his stick. But it must finally have dawned on him, as he lurched painfully about, trying to keep his failing pins in pace with his racing mind and keen eye, that the chair could be the instrument of his freedom and not the trap he feared.

“Fun Times, Jackassery” by Jim Higgins. Courtesy of Yalo Studio, Water Valley, Mississippi.

Once he got the chair, he immediately mastered it, and showed off, popping wheelies and cutting doughnuts. That’s how Higgins rolled—pun intended. Although he did complain that the chair put him at “fart level,” and subject to public assault everywhere, he cottoned to his new stature and flexibility. Fresh energy and a distinctive perspective showed brilliantly in his photographs. Not only could he maneuver more easily to shoot, he could be way less obtrusive, or intrusive as a photographer, his camera sitting unnoticed in his lap rather than hanging, cyclopically and intimidatingly, around his neck. The resultant portraits, like “The Fly Sisters,” are more candid, less formal, and more revealing, compared to earlier photos. Higgins began to shoot literally low-down, capturing things or views that might have escaped an average-sized photographer’s eye, as in “Stove,” or “Liquor-Store Tomcat.” Faces appear just above the camera’s view, and it sweetens them with a hint of adoration, as in one of his favorites, “Laurie.” Higgins did love da ladies. There are many lady shots; each comes off as close to his heart. That the fondness, and trust, is returned is plain, even, or especially, if the lady is giving him the finger, and she happens to be his grandmother, as in one wedding photo.

Higgins knew he didn’t have much time and, unlike the rest of us, he wasn’t willing to squander it, or waste talk or film on those who sucked. He did bring a thing to town that was a kind of fool trap, though: an old photo booth that he bought off a machine guy and installed in The Longshot, a narrow, cave-like bar that was part frontier saloon and part college dive, with a swank, ho-house chandelier and a phenomenal jukebox.

Night after night, students, visiting writers, musicians, yokels, and many Higgins associates crammed into the booth for the two-buck classic strips of general clusterfucking and what Higgins called jackassery. He even made some money off it. Perhaps the mad-scientist intrigue of mixing chemicals and the lovely, cheesy vintageness of the strips were what turned him on, and toward, making black-and-white portraits with his favorite camera, an old Canon Rebel. He directed some shoots in the booth—look at his collage “Photobooth Harem,” below—strawbossing one person, or a couple, and the results are kinky but have a poignancy about them, maybe because they take us back to our lost youth, the lost silliness of boardwalk summer nights, and those cherished teenage glamour shots we stuck in wallets or mirror frames.

“Photobooth Harem” by Jim Higgins. Courtesy of Yalo Studio, Water Valley, Mississippi.

Higgins wanted to bring some of that tender formality to his portraits. On his Flickr site, he wrote: I take all my pictures in color. Some of them that don’t initially appeal to me end up looking good in b&w. So, rather than simply desaturating them, I channel-mix the image (30%R,60%G,10%B) to monochrome in Photoshop and bump up the contrast. Nothing you couldn’t actually do in a traditional wet darkroom with the right equipment, by the way.

Higgins was also a kind of hip-hop photographer, sampling the styles and subjects of artists he admired, riffing on them, paying homage. There are color-struck, people-less interiors, like the empty, primary geometrics of Ajax Diner (“Untitled”), looking as funky and bold as any of Birney Imes’s photos in Juke Joint, or his strong, direct shots of ordinary objects—a saltshaker or a label—that remind us of the cigar-box treasure troves and precious junk from another Imes work, Whispering Pines. Other common objects—a squatty little Weber grill—are iconic in their ubiquity, a point clearly taken from William Eggleston. The cruddy but beautiful faux abstraction “Memphis Pickup,” or the portentously gorgeous shot “Oxford Cemetery,” where Higgins shows, in a Vermeery way, a fleeting Oxford skyscape as ephemeral as Delft’s, are both admirably Egglestonian, too—that lust for subtle color and light, and for plain old things as artifact.

“Katy Heaven” by Jim Higgins. Courtesy of Yalo Studio, Water Valley, Mississippi.

And lust for us, in all our pitiful primate dishabille (“Fun Times, Jackassery”) and fragile comeliness. Even in the stunning “Huge Green Luna Moth,” one of his last photographs, he not only nails the critter’s eye-shadowy green brilliance, he also gooses our narcissism, knowing that we will always look for the us in art: Oh, that thing looks like a fan dancer—or a ballerina en pointe—or a Noh mask, you could have said, hoping to please him, or sound smart. He’d tell you, Nah, sometimes a huge green luna moth is just a huge green luna moth. But you could tell he valued that anthropomorphic bit, too; he just wanted you to take the bait. People, and color. Jim Higgins wasn’t around long enough to find a signature style, or maybe he wasn’t going to care about a signature style, and he would have just continued to randomly photograph whatever moved him in some way. We can’t know—but we can know that his genius did not get the chance to mature. We wuz robbed. (Higgins’s work is represented by Yalo Studio, Main Street, Water Valley, Mississippi. www.yalostudio.com.)

Lisa Howorth lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where she and her husband opened Square books in 1979 and raised their thre children. Her writing has also appeared in Gardin & Gun.