“Gordon Parks’s photographs are timeless,” said Peter W Kunhardt Jr, executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation. “As we reflect on what has happened in recent months, his photographs remind us to stand up, speak out and demand justice. This exhibition does just that, highlighting images that inspire resilience and empathy that the photographer made over many years.”
The two-part exhibition, on view at both Jack Shainman Gallery locations in New York, is called Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole and until 20 February, photos from Parks taken between 1942 and 1970 will be showcased.
There are portraits of political leaders, protest images and stills from the civil rights movement, from Malcolm X to Muhammad Ali and Black Panther party members Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. There are photos from the segregated south, and from a police brutality protest in 1963, which has a striking resemblance to today’s America, over 50 years later.
His work is also on view in an exhibition at the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, Alabama, featuring his photos of segregation in America. Also, the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott recently received funding for a research project to document the shooting locations of The Learning Tree, a coming-of-age drama Parks wrote and directed in 1969 (he was the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel).
Parks, born in 1912, grew up on a farm in Kansas and attended a segregated elementary school before leaving home at 14. He lived in St Paul as a teenager, where he got into fashion photography, and later, lived in Chicago and Washington before becoming the first black photographer to shoot for Life Magazine in 1957.
In the 1950s, he traveled across the country with detectives, as they chased criminals from New York to Los Angeles in a crime series he did for Life, (in one he took in Chicago, he photographed a black man and woman being taken away by cops on a street from a window above).
He is renowned for capturing daily life in Alabama, showing black families at home, at work and shopping, while living under the harsh rule of Jim Crow laws. Parks is also praised as the director of the 1971 film, Shaft, which spearheaded the blaxploitation genre, starring Richard Roundtree, known as “the first black action hero”.
Pulitzer prize-nominated writer and Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb has written an essay to accompany the Jack Shainman exhibition. “One of the things that stood out for me is the contemporary implications of this work,” said Cobb. “I wasn’t trying to force it into the present. It was just there. In Gordon Parks’s memoir, he talks about setting out to chronicle the lives and the world that black people were living in and happening in his life. We see that many of those things he was trying to shed a light on are still the case. They’re still applicable.”
He writes in his accompanying essay that: “There is nothing in Parks’s body of work that includes the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but it didn’t need to. He’d already shown that they do, minute after minute, across the void from his time to our own.”
It certainly sums up 2020, partly in connection to the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd in May. “I was drawn to issues of police and policing because that has been at the center of our understanding around our concerns around race,” said Cobb.
Some of the most compelling photos in the exhibition include a portrait of Ella Watson, a woman with a mop and broom, posing while standing before the American flag. Or his photo of a black woman and her daughter, both adorned in beautiful dresses, while standing before the “Colored Entrance” of a department store in Alabama, dated 1956.
Deborah Willis, the chair of photography at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has curated Parks’s work in over 30 exhibitions. She says that the photographer was not only there to document everyday life during turmoil for many African Americans, but to give them hope.
“More than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we continue the struggle for human rights and equal justice; and I see this exhibition as an intimate story and critical to opening up a broader discussion on change and activism in light of the recent news,” said Willis. “It reminds us that the photographer witnessed an abundance of events that challenged our understanding of injustices, police brutality, war and peace that were bookmarked by the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.”
She asks: “How does one not look back at social protest images without connecting to Gordon Parks and his focus on the beauty of family love, resistance and struggle?”
Willis cites Dr King’s writings and lectures about his dream of a Beloved Community, which teaches the idea that for a society to overcome racism, poverty and discrimination, that we must embody a kind of sisterhood and brotherhood. “In my view, it’s connected to Gordon Parks’s desire to visualize it and a more just society,” said Willis.
“Gordon Parks tells the stories of worship services, shopping and poverty in the American south and New York’s Harlem, as he constructs and reveals the experience of the traumatic effect of lack of education and underemployment, while at the same time, suggests resilience and empowerment through Sunday dress under haunting segregation signs,” she said. “These images are in our collective memory and we still see them reflected today.”
Though the photographer died in 2006, his photos resonate today. So do his words. Parks once said: “I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America – poverty, racism, discrimination.”
“It’s crucial that we try to listen to what Gordon Parks is trying to tell us, his work is a testament, and his legacy endures,” said Cobb. “As the exhibit points to, his work is as every bit relevant as it was when he was among us, taking these images.”