George Washington Carver in His Lab, 1930
P. H. Polk, American, 1898–1984
Gelatin silver print
Image: 13 5/8 × 10 9/16 in. (34.6 × 26.8 cm) Sheet: 13 15/16 × 10 15/16 in. (35.4 × 27.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander K. McLanahan in honor of Agnes Moore

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Painting Self-Portraits

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

Students will…

•  Recognize, compare, and contrast individual differences in faces.

•  Study the proportions, textures, colors, and shapes of their own faces.

•  Create self-portraits.






Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

During his forty-five years at Tuskegee Institute, P.H. Polk photographed dozens of notable figures.  George Washington Carver was a subject of inexhaustible interest to Polk.  As director of Tuskegee’s Agricultural Institute, Carver devoted his life to improving agriculture in the South.  Products he derived from crops such as peanuts and soybeans helped free the South’s economy from its dependence on cotton.  Polk deeply admired Carver as a scientist, teacher, and artist, and he captured the many aspects of Carver’s personality by photographing him in different settings and poses.

Polk’s portraits of Carver, such as this one taken in his laboratory in 1930, are informal, improvised, and personal.  Here, the viewer looks through the scientific apparatus that clutters Carver’s laboratory table to catch him, flask in hand, conducting an experiment.  The light focuses attention on the figure and on objects in the foreground, and illuminates Carver’s hands and forehead.  Although it seems to be a casual shot, the photograph is actually carefully composed to show Carver as a hard worker and as a wise man.

Prentice Hall Polk, an African-American photographer, created a record of the daily life around him.  Polk was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1898, and studied at the Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington as a training ground in the basic trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and agriculture.  Although Polk had wanted to become a painter, the school did not offer such training, so instead he became one of the first students in the institute’s new photography department, where he studied the basic theory and techniques of the medium.  After marrying and moving to Chicago in the early 1920s, Polk apprenticed with a commercial photographer and acquired a deepened commitment to his trade.  In 1927, he returned to the Tuskegee Institute to teach photography.  Except for a brief period when he ran his own portrait studio, Polk spent the remainder of his career at the institute and was named its official photographer in 1939.

P.H. Polk was not recognized as an important American artist until the early 1970s when the body of work he had produced between 1920 and 1950 became widely known.  In addition to his documentation of George Washington Carver inside and outside of the laboratory, Polk skillfully created studio portraits of family members, the social, political, and intellectual elite around the Institute, and candid portrayals of people from nearby rural communities.


  • Describe the different elements of the photograph

  • Look at the fall of light in this work. Where does the light come from? Is it natural or artificial?

  • How does light affect the figure? And the objects?

  • How does the character mimic the objects in the composition of this photograph?

  • Describe the artist’s use of black and white within the work. How would this image be different in color?

  • What visual cues are juxtaposed in the artwork? For example, look at light and dark in the foreground and background, the elongated and round bottle shapes, and the contrast between the human figure and the immaterial objects.


  • What does the artist tell us about the subject in this photograph, George Washington Carver?

  • As director of Tuskegee’s Agricultural Institute, George Washington Carver devoted his life to improving agriculture in the South.  What aspects of Carver’s personality does the artist capture in this photograph? What does Carver’s gaze tell us?

  • What is the effect of the light captured in this photograph? Discuss how the artist uses light to create a sense of intimacy.

  • Consider the relationship between the human figure and the immaterial objects he is working with. Why do you think the artist would chose to place equal emphasis on human and object?

  • During his forty-five years at Tuskegee Institute, P.H. Polk photographed dozens of notable figures. Do the framing and composition hint at a monumental photograph or is this more of a snapshot? Why? Is there a tension between the seriousness of the character and way in which the artist has photographed him? Why do you think the artist created this duality?

  • Tuskegee Institute was a training institute for manual trades such as carpentry, plumbing, architecture and even photography, of which the artist became one of the first students and later a teacher. How does this photograph emphasize the importance of manual labor?


•  Have students carefully observe and describe their own faces, then paint a self-portrait.

•  Arrange a classroom exhibition of the self-portraits.

Subject Matter Connection

One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.