By Peter Robinson
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Gordon Parks: Photofile

This article is over 10 years, 7 months old
Issue 384

This is a beautiful new addition to the Photofile series. Parks’s photographic career spanned the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The book gives us a revealing history of African American life and much more. Despite being born into poverty in Kansas and sometimes living on the streets, Parks fought to develop his “artistic self” by writing, working as a musician and practicing as an artist.

Inspired by Great Depression photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), he bought his first camera for 12.50 (USD) when he was 25. “They were photographing poverty”, he thought, “and I knew poverty so well.”

After only five years he was taken on as the FSA’s first African American photographer. He took his first iconic photograph in the their Washington DC office. Later entitled “American Gothic”, it is of a Black charwoman holding a mop and brush. She looks tired, defiant and dignified, and the composition reminds the viewer of classic American portraiture. But she is standing in front of the US flag and the meaning is stark. The photograph asks, whose America is this?

Parks said he was determined to “use the camera as a means of persuasion”. His talent and range helped him become the first African American staff photographer on Life magazine. Already Life had a team of photojournalists who would become legendary, including Robert Capa, W Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White and Larry Burrows.

Parks specialised in photo essays of urban poverty – his first assignment was “Harlem Gang Leader”. He faced problems being accepted as a serious artist when photographing white society. Yet his pictures of white workers have the same touching intimacy as those of his black subjects.

He was assigned to Life’s Paris bureau, mainly to cover couture. This was partly because of his interest in fashion but also it would be easier for him to develop as an artist. Parks recognised his editor “may also have thought that, since I was black, I would have no problem being accepted in Europe.”

He photographed a wide spectrum of society including the stars of the day. One photograph is of Ingrid Bergman on set in Italy. Behind her, dressed all in black and wearing headscarfs, three older Italian peasant women look at her as though she was from another world. The contrasts reveal the physical and epochal distance between them.

Later in the 1960s he photographed more overtly political subjects such as Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other leaders of the Black Power movement. Always his photographs are intimate, human and reveal the soul of his subject. They can both crystallise a moment in time and contain a complex narrative.

Parks went on to write music and direct feature films, most notably the 1970s Blaxploitation classic, Shaft.

Gordon Parks: Photofile. Paul Roth, is published Thames and Hudson.

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