New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 39 November 28 to December 4, 2012

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Renaissance Man
Gordon Parks
100 Moments
R Wayne Parsons
American Gothic by Gordon Parks. Source:
Gordon Parks, "American Gothic"

“An objective reporter with a subjective heart.” These are the words Gordon Parks chose about himself. This visitor to Gordon Parks: 100 Moments would agree that the description is apt. It is the centennial of Mr. Parks’s birth, and this exhibition is but one of a number of events held this year in his honor.

Over his long career (he died in 2006 at the age of 93) Parks wore many hats: photographer (fashion, photo-journalism and documentary, portraiture, fine art), film director (best known for the 1971 film Shaft; he was the first black artist to direct a major Hollywood film), writer (memoirs, novels, poetry, photography instruction books), and composer.

Even though this is a large exhibition with just over 100 images, it covers only a small part of Parks’s photographic career. The show concentrates on Parks’s work from the early 1940s documenting the black experience in New York and Washington, D.C. The highlight of this exhibition is the photo essay he did about the life of Ella Watson, a Washington charwoman. On the advice of Roy Stryker, Parks’s mentor at the Farm Security Administration where he was a photography intern, Parks spent considerable time befriending Ms. Watson and learning about her life and her hardships. One of the resulting images, American Gothic, is an iconic statement about the black odyssey in America. In this photo Ms. Watson is posed in front of an American flag wearing a simple print dress and holding a mop and a broom. None of the elements of this photo were serendipitous, as Parks designed the image as an indictment of America for failure to live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Parks tells us that Stryker feared that the image was so provocative that it would get them all fired, but fortunately that did not happen. Parks notes that this is perhaps his favorite photo from his career – the first professional image that he made.

 by Gordon Parks. Source:
Gordon Parks

Most of the photographs chosen for this show document black life in these two cities. We see photos of children playing, families eating dinner, residents worshipping, adults working and doing other things that adults do. The physical conditions of the community are documented by photographs of building exteriors and interiors as well as street scenes. There is a small selection of portraits of eminent African-Americans, such as Richard Wright, Marian Anderson, and Ralph Ellison.

The visitor to the exhibition must make a point to watch the twenty-some-odd minutes of excerpts from a 1984 film about Parks, as it delves into aspects of Parks’s career not explored in the photos on the walls. He discusses his career, talks about some of the many bold face names he knew and worked with (e.g., Louis Armstrong, Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali), comments on the aesthetics of photography, and devotes a good deal of time to his film career. Emerging from the film is a portrait of a man who was perceptive, sensitive, committed, articulate, and entertaining. We can’t help but come away liking him. While it would be hard to position Parks as an innovator in photographic style, he did historically important and pioneering work in content.

Mention must be made of one outstanding image not previously known to this reviewer: “Music: That Lordly Power” from 1993 shows a young man playing the cello while a young woman leans dreamily on his shoulder. This is a wonderfully conceived, perfectly composed photograph that joins that poignant group of images that tell us why art matters. It alone is reason enough to see this exhibition.

Gordon Parks
100 Moments
Curator: Deborah Willis

Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
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Thursday, July 12 to
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Hours: Mon-Wed, 12 to 8; Thur-Fri, 11 to 6; Sat, 10 to 5