Before Gordon Parks was photographer extraordinaire, filmmaker of important African-American cinema, composer and all-around renaissance man, he was a self-trained neophyte photographer who pulled himself out of poverty through sheer talent and creative force.
Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on Nov. 30, 1912, in the segregated town of Fort Scott, Kansas, he went on to be perhaps the most renowned and revered African-American photographer of all time. But his renown came with hardship and struggle, with an unhealthy dose of racism in the mix.
“Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” currently on view at the National Gallery of Art’s West building, is an expansive exhibition of 150 works by the photographer in his nascent days. It is a trip back in time, where one can follow the development and achievements of the American icon.
“When Gordon Parks met Richard Wright in 1943, the author inscribed a copy of his best-selling novel ‘Native Son’ to the young photographer, and he wrote ‘to one who moves with the new tide,’ which is a reference to the advancing progress toward equality for African Americans,” said Phillip Brookman, the National Gallery’s curator of photography, who helped assemble the exhibit.
“In Parks, Richard Wright recognized the story of remarkable advancement, propelled by talent, dedication and careful observation,” Brookman said. “The term ‘The New Tide’ that Parks certainly recognized when Richard Wright wrote that in his copy of ‘Native Son’ comes from Wright’s book ‘Twelve Million Black Voices.'”
The exhibit is divided into five sections documenting the progress and development of Parks’ talent and highlights lesser-known works by the photographer alongside his most recognizable images.
Starting with “A Choice of Weapons,” which refers to Parks’ use of the camera to combat the inequities he saw in his own community and other parts of the American society, the section includes some of his stellar portraits of famous artists, musicians and politicians.
Within these photos taken between 1940 and 1942, Parks created several portraits of the poet Langston Hughes (ironically inscribed by Hughes to author/photographer Carl Van Vechten), historian/author Alain Locke, artist Eldzier Cotor and poet Margaret Burroughs. But it was the painter Charles White, whom Parks met at the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago after moving from Kansas to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, who encouraged him to hit the streets with his camera to document the surrounding poverty.
The photo of White, gripping his paintbrushes firmly while gazing directly into the camera, is one of the most striking of Parks’ early works.
Parks also had deep ties to D.C., which inspired perhaps his most famous photo, “DC Government charwoman,” which depicts Ella Watson, a cleaning woman who worked for the government. Through a series of photos of Watson and her family, Parks learned about the bigotry that informed her reality, and the dignity and moral character of the woman who stands before an American flag, broom in hand with her mop propped on a table beside her.
Parks would also photograph the Frederick Douglass Dwellings in Anacostia as part of his job for the Farm Security Administration that was looking to enlist support from African Americans for the war effort in 1942.
The section, titled “Government Work,” features photos taken during his short time with the agency. It also gave Parks an opportunity to work with the legendary historical photographer Roy Emerson Stryker, who initially sent him out into the segregated city without his camera, where Parks found the discrimination against him in theaters, restaurants and stores deeply disturbing.
“Home Front,” the third section of the exhibition, shows Parks’ work for the Office of War Information, where photographers from the FSA were transferred in 1942. Here he documented the tenements in D.C.’s Southwest quadrant, focusing on children living in squalid conditions. He also created portraits of the singer Marian Anderson, educator/activist Mary McLeod Bethune and Richard Wright during this fertile period in his career.
The next section, “Standard Oil,” shows photographs from Parks’ time working for the energy company that was on a public relations campaign to improve its image during the years 1944 through 1948. Blamed for shortages during that time, the company hired Parks to show the ‘face of oil,’ concentrating on the workers on the job and at play.
During this period, he also photographed moving images of indigenous people in the Northwest and in Canada. Within the four-plus years of working for the company, he captured the tenuous world of oil and grease production.
The final section of the exhibit, “Mass Media,” focuses on the works by Parks that are most familiar to people — his fashion photographs for Glamour, Smart Woman and Ebony magazines and his freelance work. In 1948, Parks collaborated with the renowned writer Ralph Ellison to produce “Harlem is Nowhere,” an article that looked at the life of young gangsters in the New York City neighborhood.
By then, Parks had permanently relocated to New York City, and when Life magazine published the article “Harlem Gang Leader” in November 1948, his reputation as a consummate and talented documentarian of Black life in America was cemented. In 1949, he was hired as the first Black photographer for the famous magazine, a flashpoint in his now-legendary career.
Parks died in 2006 in New York City, leaving behind a priceless catalogue of photographs, musical compositions and films he directed, including the autobiographical “The Learning Tree” and the celebrated cornerstone of “Blaxploitation” films, “Shaft.”
“Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” remains on view until Feb. 18, when it will travel to its next stop on a multi-city tour, the Cleveland Museum of Art. It will also be shown at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. The tour continues through April 2020.
The exhibition is also accompanied by a formidable catalogue that includes new research, produced and published by the Gordon Parks Foundation, which collaborated with the National Gallery of Art to create the exhibition.
“Established in 2007 to preserve and promote his work and legacy, the Foundation has systematically made it possible to study his life and art through collaborations with museums,” said Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation.
“As this exhibition shows, his photographs from the 1940s are the foundation of his storied career and vision,” Kunhardt said. “For Parks, creativity brought with it, a fuller, more poignant understanding of humanity that is now our responsibility to share.”
The exhibition also features a variety of public programs designed to further the public’s appreciation for Parks’ life and legendary work.
For more information, go to nga.gov.