April 4, 2007
Gordon Parks photography retrospective sheds light on social issues
By Angela Freeman
A retrospective of the works of the late Gordon Parks is on view at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts through July 1. "Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks" features 73 prints spanning his career, which he spent documenting not only celebrity life but also the lives of the urban and rural poor.
Born in Fort Scott, Kan., in 1912, Parks first became interested in photography after studying portraits in the magazines left behind on the train where he worked as a porter.
He began working professionally in the 1940s and is best known for his depictions of crime and poverty. He was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document conditions of rural poverty to build support for President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
His FSA photographs are among his most striking, including his unique take on the famous painting American Gothic. Parks' version of the iconic artwork shows Ella Watson, a black charwoman, holding a broom and mop against the backdrop of an American flag. The lighting and focus in Parks' American Gothic emphasize some details and hide others; for example, the flag behind her is in soft focus, contrasting with the sharply detailed broom in her hand. Her face is half hidden in shadow; Parks used a similar approach to lighting in many of his portraits.
Parks spent time with Watson and her family for more than a month, documenting her tiny apartment, her family, her menial job, her involvement with her church. Taken together, the collection of photos conveys a sense of how a hardworking American family copes with poverty and hardship.
Shedding light on social issues
Parks moved comfortably in the upper echelons of society; he established himself as a prominent fashion and celebrity photographer, shooting spreads for Vogue and creating portraits of celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Ingrid Bergman, Leonard Bernstein and Langston Hughes. But his true priority was bringing issues of social injustice to light.
"He was really interested in people and the condition in which they live," said Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Cantor Center. "That's what links his work, whether it's from the forties or the seventies."
His first prominent photo essay for Life magazine, where he was a staff photographer for 25 years, was a series documenting Harlem street gang life, a project for which he shadowed a gang leader, Red Jackson, for several weeks. The resulting photos had a shocking authenticity that led to a national debate on inner-city programs.
He later produced a piece on poverty in Brazil, including a series of photographs of the Da Silva family, which highlighted the plight of asthmatic son Flavio. The photos inspired an outpouring of public support, and Life readers donated $30,000 to improve the Da Silva family's living conditions and pay for Flavio's medical treatment.
During his career, Parks also photographed people and events associated with the civil rights movement, the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers.
In addition to his accomplishments as a photographer, Parks was a writer, publishing several memoirs, novels and photography books, in addition to the text for his Life photo essays; a filmmaker who became the first black director of a major motion picture, Shaft; and a musician who composed the libretto and music for a ballet about Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the scores for his movies and more.
The exhibition, which fills two galleries at the Cantor Center, will be discussed at an Aurora Forum panel, "Exposures of Truth: Richard Avedon and Gordon Parks," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, in Kresge Auditorium.