Gordon Parks Photographed Hate While Creating Beauty

Over and over again, he captured America’s decisive moments


Looking through his camera lens, Gordon Parks surveyed mid-20th-century America and shot photographs as informative as newspaper headlines and as rigorously composed as oil paintings. In this exhibition, which spans two galleries and three decades (1942–1970), viewers can feel Parks (1912–2006) absorbing the art of his time and using his lens to frame timeless moments. 

The fifteenth child of Black sharecroppers in Kansas, Parks taught himself how to use a camera and won a prestigious fellowship that led to a job, in 1942, at the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency charged with combating rural poverty. One tactic was to photograph and publicize the struggles of small farmers still suffering from the Great Depression. When Parks first arrived in Washington, D.C., he told his new boss, Roy Stryker, he didn’t know much about the nation’s capital, other than that it was “the seat of democracy.” Stryker (whom Parks later characterized as “a very wise mentor”) told the 30-year-old Parks to leave his camera in the office and just go out and explore the city. “I came back rather disgruntled,” Parks told an interviewer many years later. “I was refused at the theaters because I was Black, I couldn’t go into a restaurant and eat, and I was pretty upset when I got back.” Stryker then asked him, “How do you photograph discrimination or prejudice? You just don’t turn a camera on a guy and say, this guy’s a bigot, because bigots have a way of looking like anybody else.” Parks ended up interviewing a cleaning woman, Ella Watson, who was working down the hall: “She had been discriminated against and exposed to all sorts of terrible things in her life” — her father had been murdered by a lynch mob, her husband shot to death. “That’s the photograph I made of her, in the government building, in front of the American flag, with a broom in her hand and a mop in the other, and as my contribution to the style of Grant Wood, of course — the American Gothic, I called it. And when Roy Stryker saw that picture he nearly died. He said, ‘Oh my God, we’re all gonna be fired.’”

Parks’s insatiable eye subsumed much art that had come before him. An untitled image of boys leaping with baseball gloves, their exuberance doubled in a foreground puddle, can be seen as expanding on French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of “the decisive moment,” an exact event captured by grains of silver being struck by light passing through a lens at an always unique way station in time. 

Over and over again, Parks caught America’s decisive moments, but his images often conveyed the contemplative gravitas of oil painting. While on assignment in Alabama for Life magazine, in 1956, Parks documented numerous scenes of segregation, such as a young Black woman and little girl, both wearing beautiful dresses, outside a Mobile department store. Parks had worked at times as a fashion photographer, and he zeroed in on the fine details of the filmy fabrics while allowing a red neon “Colored Entrance” sign over their heads to drift slightly out of focus. The pair stands very still, intent on something outside the frame, while a blurry car heads in the direction of their gaze. In the gauzy distance, a red phone booth echoes a red dress. Composing on the fly, Parks captured a portrait of poise and grace amid the dehumanizing grind of Jim Crow indignities. 

On that same trip to the deep south, Parks photographed two young girls wearing boldly patterned dresses playing in a shallow body of water near a clapboard house. Like one of Romare Beardon’s dynamic collages, Parks discovered an endless variety of textures within his frame — leaves blur the building’s geometries and long grass mingles with the brown water, further emphasizing the formal contrasts in the girls’ clothes and the singular intensity that children can bring to play. 

In another photographic essay for Life, “The Atmosphere of Crime” (1957), Parks documented a hand protruding from behind bars, a cigarette held between relaxed fingers. A blocky shadow offers the only indication of the rest of the prisoner’s body. The grain of the photographic film, along with the gridded diagonals of light and broad planes of color surrounding the hand, convey a slow, accreted understanding of the human figure. As a photographer, Parks didn’t have the time to spend at an easel the way Vermeer or Hopper would, but like those masters of light and form, he understood that by concisely framing the abstract elements of his compositions, he could cast the humanity of his subjects into that much higher relief.  

And while all serious artists survey their antecedents, the best are also able to project their work into the future. In 1963, Parks traveled to rallies protesting police violence. In a photograph of one demonstration, a Black man carries a sign reading POLICE BRUTALITY MUST GO, an umbrella in his other hand complementing his stylish overcoat and hat. In another print, a dark hand grasps a LIBERTY OR DEATH placard while a white cop does his best to look blasé and away. In this same vein of disembodied hands thrusting truth at those unwilling to see it, fingers clutch a newspaper bearing the headline SEVEN UNARMED NEGROES SHOT IN COLD BLOOD BY LOS ANGELES POLICE, while an older white woman in her Sunday hat trudges past, ignoring the imploring EXTRA banner. 

Sixty years ago, Parks knew that his visions had to break through that era’s complacency, disinformation, and willful ignorance. Yet he didn’t let others’ hatred blind him to the joy he often felt in the lives of his subjects. Another shot from that same time captures a crowd with hands happily clasping and clapping at a rally in Harlem, perhaps reacting to an exhortation from Malcolm X, who appears in the same series. 

Parks, a natty dresser and engaging raconteur, would go on to many aesthetic triumphs, not least as the director of Shaft, in 1971, in which the sharply turned-out private dick outsmarts a full spectrum of haters and exits the last scene laughing uproariously. 

Like that fictional hero, Parks confronted the world on his own terms, unblinking in the face of undeniable ugliness but also reveling in what joy he could find, documenting the facts for posterity while simultaneously creating art for the ages. ❖

Gordon Parks: Half and Whole
Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street
524 West 24th Street
212 645 1701,
Through February 20, 2021

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