Gordon Parks, who died in 2006 at 93, is best remembered as a filmmaker (The Learning Tree; Shaft) and as a photojournalist who wielded his camera—his “choice of weapon,” as he put it—against social injustice. He was also a painter; a talented pianist and composer; a fiction writer, an essayist, and a serial memoirist; and a breaker of glass ceilings (“One marvels that he has been able to find the time to write about his life while he has been busy living it,” quipped The New York Times in 1991). Born in Ft. Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of 15, into a poor tenant farming—rural Kansas, Parks would say, was technically Northern but functionally Southern in its institutionalized racism—he grew up to become one of the first major black filmmakers and the first black photographer to shoot for Vogueand Life.
He made his name at Life publishing searing photo essays that exposed the struggles of black Americans during the decades surrounding the Civil Rights movement. But he also shot portraits and fashion spreads for both Life and Vogue. Those lesser-known images are now at the center of “Gordon Parks: I Am You, Part 1,” a new show opening tonight at the Jack Shainman gallery in Chelsea (a second chapter will open in February, and will focus on his better-known photojournalism).
“I wanted to show first the things that people don’t really know of him,” Shainman told me when I came by earlier this week to check out the work as it was being installed. “The range is so extraordinary.” The gallerist, whose roster of artists reads like a Who’s Who of the black contemporary art world, says Parks’s name comes up often as an influence. “I’ve sold works that are based on Gordon Parks for so many years,” Shainman goes on, mentioning Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas. An assistant proffers an iPad so that I can compare a piece by Thomas to the Parks photograph it quotes: American Gothic, Washington, D.C., taken in 1942 during a stint working for the Farm Security Administration. It shows an African-American janitor wielding her mop and broom in front of an American flag (Parks, of course, was quoting Grant Wood).
Shainman’s exhibition takes its title from text the artist penned to accompany a 1967 project on the Fontenelles, the down-on-their-luck Harlem family Parks photographed as a way of illustrating the squalid, systemic poverty that was contributing to race riots in cities across America. In his essay, he wrote: “What I want. What I Am. What you force me to be is what you are. For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself.”
Much of Parks’s work demands that sort of visual confrontation. This show does not. “I Am You, Part 1” is about the pleasure of looking, about Parks as a seeker and creator of beauty, an “incredible artist,” says Shainman. Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, puts it more bluntly: “We’ve strategically been working on Gordon Parks as a 20th-century master photographer.” He indicates two abstract images that hang near the front of the gallery, the type of otherworldly landscapes that dominated the artist’s attention near the end of his life. He made them by photographing assembled objects against painted backgrounds, and he would be “thrilled,” asserts Kunhardt, to have them in the show.
There are excerpts from some of Parks’s harder-charging projects: a photo essay on the Nation of Islam (the photographer was close with Malcolm X, and godfather to one of his children); one about a black family living in the segregated South; a diary of a trip back to Kansas to revisit the home he had endeavored to escape; a collaboration with his friend Ralph Ellison, illustrating The Invisible Man. But divorced from context, they only gesture at their broader story. When we see Harlem, it isn’t a gritty photo from the Fontenelle series, it’s a lovely filmic image—think Newsies—of a boy in a captain’s hat, resting against the window of a car.
Parks first imagined a future in fashion photography when he was a young man working as a waiter on the North Coast Limited rail line, and devouring the magazines that travelers left behind. He wrote in his 1990 autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, about Vogue: “Along with its fashion pages, I studied the names of its famous photographers—Steichen, Blumenfeld, Horst, Beaton, Hoyningen-Huené, thinking meanwhile that my own name could look quite natural among them.” First, he needed a portfolio. He pitched his services to a high-end St. Paul department store (he’d moved to Minnesota after his mother died when he was 15), and was granted an unlikely audition that ended in near disaster: After developing his film, he realized that he’d double exposed almost everything. But the one image that survived was strong enough to win him a do-over.
In the mid-1940s, Vogue Art Director Alexander Liberman hired him. Only two of his images for this magazine, both from a 1965 shoot with the model Veruschka, made it into the Shainman show. There are many more from Life: fantastically glamorous shots of women wearing evening wraps for a 1956 story set on the empty streets of Manhattan; one of a lady in a giraffe-print coat standing in front of an actual giraffe, at what must be the San Diego Zoo (“something he did a lot was merging the background and the female figure,” says Marisa Cardinale of the Parks Foundation); and a set of photos taken in Malibu in 1958, of models in beachwear, framed as though the photographer was surveilling his subject with a telescope—very Rear Window. There are also a couple of outtakes from a 1978 Revlon shoot with a young Iman.
In most of his fashion images, Parks was photographing white models, and one can infer the extra layer of complication that must have accompanied these shoots, particularly in the early days, an era when black men weren’t free to stare at white women, much less to instruct them on how to pose for the camera. But his accounts of those times focus less on the subversion of the white gaze than on his irritation with his preening, entitled subjects. “My work in Vogue,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, A Hungry Heart, “brought me into contact with the industry’s most dazzling models. But coping with their moods and whims wasn’t easy. The finest ones demanded big money, and some arrived weighted with troubles. Soured love affairs and monthly female problems prevailed. At times the first hour was given to tales of woe. But ignoring those problems amounted to tossing big money into the rubbish.” He groused about the same issue in 1990 in Voices in the Mirror: “The sensual wink of an eye or a mischievous smile could reduce the gown they wore to insignificance. That the wink or the smile failed to contribute to the mood I was creating seldom crossed their mind. It then became my responsibility to lull them into expressions more fitting to the clothes they were wearing. This consumed time—expensive time.”
Parks’s photographs of the artists and luminaries he shot for Life are as compelling as his fashion photos. In this show there are portraits of Muhammad Ali, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington, Helen Frankenthaler, Ingrid Bergman, and Gloria Vanderbilt—with whom Parks, who married and divorced three times, maintained a decades-long relationship. (“Sometimes she would send me a little poem, which encouraged me to start writing poetry,” he told the Times in 2000.) There’s a fantastic series of Alberto Giacometti, as eerie as his art, frolicking among his metal stick sculptures, and a pair of photos of a ghostly Alexander Calder playing god with his mobiles.
When I ask Kunhardt and Cardinale for their favorite pieces, he points to Boy with June Bug, Fort Scott, Kansas, a staged 1963 photo of a young black boy laying in a field, holding a piece of string that’s tied to an insect scrambling on his forehead. “It’s more than just a picture,” Kunhardt says. “It’s Gordon’s life story.” Cardinale chooses a 1941 black-and-white portrait of a young Langston Hughes, taken in Chicago at the South Side Community Arts Center. Hughes faces down the camera, his head nestled against a wooden picture frame, his hand jutting through the empty space the frame boxes out. “When this was taken these were two unknown young artists, totally obscure, and they went on to be legends in their fields,” she says. “I find that really fascinating.”
The portrait mirrors another from 1941 which hangs toward the entrance, so similar that it’s likely they were taken at the same time: it’s Parks, in his late 20s, face expressionless (no wink, no mischievous smile), fingers curling over his shutter release. His gaze has drifted off to the side—something, perhaps, has caught his eye—but the eye of his camera is staring right back at us.