A particularly arresting image that I saw recently is that of a black mother and daughter (most likely), standing in front of a department store in 1950s Mobile, Alabama, below a sign in red neon: “Colored Entrance”. There is a palpable sadness in the photograph, given its historical context. And yet there is a quiet, defiant elegance and joy. The mother and daughter are well-dressed, in white and pastel blue, respectively. We see bow, earrings, heels, purse.
Are they going to a party? Maybe. The image seems to say that the pleasures of ordinary life will persist despite the brutality of institutional discrimination. The same mother and daughter are seen elswhere—the first drinks from a fountain marked “Colored Only” while the other looks at posters of ice cream and hot dog behind a glass wall. A similar feeling emanates from this picture—the perseverance of will and wonder before the fact of colossal indignity.
These photos are part of the exhibition “Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole” at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City (January 7 – February 20, 2021). A photographer, film director, composer and writer, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a visionary artist whose work continues to influence American culture to this day.
Shot in Alabama, New York and Chicago, the images in the exhibition are from the period between 1942 and 1970 and belong mostly to the iconic series Invisible Man and Segregation Story. They demonstrate the continued influence and impact of Parks’s images, which remain as relevant today as they were at the time of their making. Jelani Cobb, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and Columbia University Professor writes of these photographs: “we see Parks performing the same service for ensuing generations—rendering a visual shorthand for bigger questions and conflicts that dominated the times. Bearing witness.”
The photos exemplify Parks’s singular use of colour and composition to render an unprecedented view of the Black experience in America. They document both the triumphs and struggles of African American life. There are images of protest and portraits of leaders in the fight for social justice and racial equality, among them Malcolm X, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Muhammad Ali, and a woman only known via Parks’s searing portrait, Ella Watson.
In the months since the murder of George Floyd, these images—many made over half a century ago—resonate louder than ever. Of particular note are 1963 images of protests relating to incidents of police brutality, equally striking for their relevance as for their contemporary compositions. Regardless of subject, Parks was more than a keen observer, he was a witness who through his photographs was able to channel the humanity that powered such struggles.
Another significant image in the collection is “Doll Test, Harlem, New York” from 1947. It captures an important experiment conducted by social psychologists Kenneth (1914-2005) and Marnie Clark (1917-1983), whose work on children’s attitudes towards race was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision regarding Brown v. Board of Education, demanding the racial integration of American public schools.
The test was a way of ascertaining whether African-American children were psychologically and emotionally damaged by attending a segregated school. Kenneth Clark would produce white and black dolls and say, “Show me the doll that you like to play with…the doll that’s a nice doll…the doll that’s a bad doll.”
Most African-American children from segregated schools rejected the black doll. And when they were asked, “Now show me the doll that’s most like you,” some became emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected. Others even stormed out of the room.
Born in Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota as a teenager and began taking fashion photographs for a local clothing store. In 1940, he moved to Chicago, where he operated a portrait studio on the city’s South Side. After being awarded the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, he moved to Washington D.C. and worked for the Farm Security Administration. In 1948, after working as a freelance photographer for publications such as Ebony and Vogue, he was hired as the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine. He held the position at the magazine until the early 1970s, completing groundbreaking assignments that are some of the most important and iconic documentation of the Civil Rights Movement.
Parks was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the classic motion picture Shaft. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and continued working until his death in 2006. That year, he established The Gordon Parks Foundation to continue his influential legacy. Current institutional exhibitions include Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime” in the permanent collection galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY and Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali, The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.
Born into poverty and segregation, Parks was first drawn to photography when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine. He taught himself how to use a camera purchased at a pawn shop and, despite his lack of professional training, found employment chronicling the nation’s social conditions in his own unique style.