Gordon Parks: The Lost Photographs of an America Awash in a Rising Tide

Gordon Parks – Self Portrait – 1945. The Clarence Ward Art Library at Oberlin College

Many people are familiar with Gordon Parks’ more popular works including the pre-eminent Blaxploitation film Shaft, his semi-autobiographical work in The Learning Tree, and his celebrated rise as  Time Life magazine’s first African American staff photographer. However, it is the image of Ella Watson, the woman he positioned front and center of his most rousing work, American Gothic, in which a dignified government office worker holds up her broom against a blurry backdrop of the American flag, that truly shaped his lens on life.

Gordon Parks – American Gothic – Washington-DC – 1942. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

On October 10, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation, hosted an intimate breakfast to celebrate the launch of their upcoming exhibit of Mr. Parks’ earlier works capturing the living and working conditions of Mrs. Watson and many other marginalized Americans in the decade following the start of the second World War.

The exhibition and its companion book, Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work 1940–1950, was unveiled yesterday at the posh Ginny’s Supper Club, located in Harlem’s famed Red Rooster restaurant.

The event attracted luminaries from across New York City’s arts and culture spectrum including Genevieve (Jean) Young, the artist’s third wife; Thelma Golden, Executive Director of the Studio Museum of Harlem; and Deborah Willis, NYU’s Department Chair of Photography and Imaging, and a renowned photographer in her own right.

The exhibition and accompanying book came together after years of meticulous research to gain an in-depth look into the initial photographs and influencers that punctuated Mr. Parks’ formative years, including his time as a hobo, promising basketball player and menial laborer, before landing somewhat steady employment as a porter on a Northern Pacific Railways passenger train.

Although accounts differ as to when he purchased his first camera, by December of 1937, Parks was an avid reader, athlete and self-taught musician, forming the Gordon Parks Chicago Savoy Orchestra and playing guard for a semi-professional basketball league, before emerging as the man behind some of the most captivating images of his era.

Portrait Of Langston Hughes. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

The accompanying 346-page volume is a marvel worthy of its own merit.  Cloth-bound and richly textured, it’s heft highlights more than 300 striking photographs and, in a few instances, test sheets, of Parks’ early forays into the world of photography beginning in the late 1930’s. On its cover, his iconic photo of Black Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, taken by the artist in 1941.

The book, divided into five “plates” or sections, spans a career in which Mr. Parks seemingly photographed every slice of American life. His lens deftly captured the nuances of dignitaries and indigents alike, and  focused on nearly as many corners: the impoverished children of Puerto Rico, church-going couples in Detroit; Alain Locke and Eleanor Roosevelt at Chicago’s Parkway Ballroom; Esso workers and Gloucester anglers.

The book places much-needed emphasis on Parks’ relationships with other noteworthy American artists and patrons of his time including Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Roy Stryker, and most notably, Richard Wright with whom he collaborated with on Wrights’ expansive 12 Million Black Voices project.  However, one glance at the languid look of Parks’ Drugstore ‘Cowboys’ easily lends itself to the unrequited bigotry of Untitled, Harlem, and my personal favorite, Off Own My Own, in which a man, lit by dusk as he traverses an anonymous alleyway, are all photographs that dare you to explore their resemblances to contemporary working-class life.

Off Own My Own Photo by Gordon Parks. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

The remaining sections are equally evocative. Ingrid Bergman’s facial reaction to a gathering of giggling nuns in Stromboli, Italy; the wall-papered death room in Fort Scott; a clutch of colorfully-dressed African-American girls in Mobile, Alabama; their faces hidden from view, as they peer through a metal fence into a playground they know (but perhaps do not know why), they are unable to play in.

The ‘Government Work plate contains a selection of photographs taken largely in the D.C. area, and includes the famous American Gothic photograph, as well as Parks’ stirring image of Marian Anderson’s subsequent performance after the DAR denied her the right to sing a Negro spiritual at Constitution Hall.

Likewise, fans of his “Harlem Gang Story” pictorial are treated to the lush and melancholy spread of ‘Red’ Jackson and his crew, including one in which they attend a funeral to “study the wounds” of a fallen associate.

In a fitting finale, the book devotes its closing pages to archival newsprint that serves as a fascinating info-graph of Park’s growing recognition during his time at The St. Paul Recorder, as well as comprehensively researched essays from historians Sarah Lewis (who also provides the book’s introduction), Richard Powell, and the aforementioned Ms. Willis.

Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

At the breakfast, Ms. Willis spoke lovingly of Mr. Parks’ earlier works – noting the poise and power he endowed to his earliest subjects: African-American women-about-town, including Mrs. Marva Trotter Louis, wife of boxing legend Joe Louis – and his groundbreaking decision to photograph women, in particular, with distinction and dimension.

This unique exhibition not only demonstrates Mr. Parks many talents both behind and in front of the camera years before his trajectory at Time Life, it further illuminates the power pictures have to deeply affect pre-conceived canons of American history.  While conflicting at times, his work shines a pivotal light on the long, blurred path the American flag has traversed on its road to equality, proving itself as essential viewing and reading for all of us.

The breakfast was hosted by Phillip Brookman, Consulting Curator with the National Gallery of Art with opening remarks by Peter Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation. The wide-ranging exhibition runs from November 4, 2018 to February 18, 2019 and features an array of cultural and community programming throughout the D.C. area including a concert highlighting Mr. Parks early music recordings, a locally-led writing salon, a film retrospective, and other similarly-themed activities for both children and adults. For more information, visit www.nga.gov/GordonParks.