Gordon Parks was the 15th of 15 children, grew up poor in rural Kansas when Jim Crow held sway, was on his own by the time he was 15, and at one point was playing piano in a brothel to get a few dollars in his pocket.
Yet, despite these inauspicious beginnings, Parks became one of 20th-century America’s most accomplished Renaissance men.
Perhaps best known for writing and directing the blaxploitation classic “Shaft,” Parks also penned books of poetry, composed a symphony, created a ballet, wrote novels, was the editorial director for Essence magazine and produced abstract paintings. He was also a self-taught photographer whose subjects ranged from Alabama families suffering under segregation to fashion models and Malcolm X. Life and Vogue magazines were outlets for his work, and his photographs have since been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and scores of other institutions.
“Nothing came easy,” said Parks, who died at age 93 in 2006. “I was just born with a need to explore every part of my mind. And with long searching and hard work, I became devoted to my restlessness.”
The Carnegie Museum of Art is surveying a relatively unheralded chapter in Parks’ long career through the exhibit “Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946,” which opened April 30. It features more than 50 images Parks captured at the Penola, Inc., grease plant on two separate visits to the city under the auspices of Standard Oil, as the company looked to burnish its image during World War II. Parks’ assignment was to photograph the plant’s workers as they manufactured “Eisenhower grease” being used by U.S. forces in Europe in their drive to vanquish Nazi Germany. During his 1946 stop, Parks was photographed by Charles “Teenie” Harris, the acclaimed Pittsburgh Courier photographer whose work shines a light on Black life in Pittsburgh and the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s.
“Just the idea that these two titans of postwar photojournalism were in the same room at the same time in Pittsburgh is so inspiring,” said Dan Leers, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s curator of photography. “I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that room.”
Leers pointed out that, in his photos at the grease plant, Parks is “telling the story of the industry, but he’s also telling a story through the focus of the people doing the work.”
One thread that runs through Parks’ work, whether on celluloid, on canvas or on the printed page, is his understanding of, and empathy for, people, Leers explained.
“He had such a keen sense for who these individuals were that he was depicting, and communicated a sense of their character and their individuality. He had that humanistic eye while he was here in Pittsburgh. He is telling the story of the industry, but he’s also telling a story through the focus of the people doing the work.”
The humanism that was so integral to Parks’ work was a product of his own early trials, Leers noted. Parks himself once said, “I suffered first as a child from discrimination, poverty...So I think it was a natural follow from that that I should use my camera to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves.”
According to Leers, “He took everything he learned in life and poured it into his work with the camera.”
Two events are planned to accompany the exhibit. The first is the launch of the book accompanying the exhibit on Thursday, May 19 at 6 p.m., with Mark Whitaker, the author of the Pittsburgh history “Smoketown” on hand. Then, on Thursday, May 26 at 6 p.m., there will be a discussion on finding family members and uncovering community history within the museum’s archives.