Exhibition Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Gordon Parks, 1940-1950
By Matt Fink
Our fascination with beginnings, with the nascent in art, music, literature, history, etc., is bound up with our obsession with what makes us “us”: if the ego is but a crude sculpture of our past experiences, then those lumps of clay which form its base should hold more than a passing interest.
It’s precisely our preoccupation with origin stories that makes ‘The New Tide”, an exhibit of photographer Gordon Parks’ early work showing November 4 - February 18 at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., so compelling.
Parks, for the uninitiated, was a trailblazing, incredibly prolific photographer and filmmaker, active throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century. One of the first black men to cross the race line in the pursuit of careers in both photography and cinema (not to mention music, painting, and writing), his artistic beginnings were only sketchily known - sketched by the artist himself in a series of reportedly unreliable memoirs - when curator Phillip Brookman began the task of compiling the images and information that would become “The New Tide.”
“He would always say, ‘My first professional photograph was the portrait of the government charwoman,’” explained Brookman shortly after wrapping up a promotional event for the exhibit at Ginny’s Supper Club in early October. “So I’d ask him, ‘What did you do before that? Where are the pictures from Chicago?’”
“He’d scoff and say, ‘Meh, I threw those negatives out.’”
Indeed, Brookman was unable to find negatives of Parks’ early work during a long and laborious research process. He did, however, find prints of photos that had been published in Chicago newspapers, in addition to pictures taken from family albums and collections kept by various organizations he had worked for there.
In 1929, Parks moved to Illinois’ shining cosmopolitan capital from Minnesota - having arrived there from his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, one year before. The young man’s northerly move was in keeping with the massive migration in the first few decades of the 20th Century of black people from the rural South to the industrial North. Parks was, therefore, not so far removed from his first subjects: young urban black people whose defiantly urbane, elegant poise and impeccable sartorial acumen served - deliberately or not - as a cogent visual rebuttal to prevailing mainstream preconceptions regarding race. (Chicago at this time was, it should be mentioned, a thriving honey comb swarming with artistic ferment: among the many portraits of unknowns here is a series of studio shots of a dapper, seductive Langston Hughes, already a literary star of the Harlem Renaissance.)
The mid-1940s saw Parks’ trading one metropolis for another, leaving Chicago to work for the Standard Oil Company in New York. In the ensuing years he contributed to a slew of top fashion magazines, such as Ebony, Glamour and Vogue, work which culminating in a dream gig for any shutterbug of the time: staff photographer at Life. He would stay with the magazine until the early 1970s. Between his work for Life, the fashion jobs and government contracts, the breadth of subject matter collected in the National Gallery exhibit is remarkable, speaking to an insatiable omnivorousness and curiosity, a thirst for experience which disregarded concerns for the age’s various rigid racial proprieties - or boundaries between “high” and “low” art, for that matter.
The decades that followed the ten year period documented in “The New Tide” would see America coming to grips with its dark racial politics as never before. Parks was there, both as an activist and a documentarian; his images from that and other eras of his life and work can be seen on the website of the Gordon Parks Foundation, the exhibition’s main organizer.
While the exhibit will be making appearances in Cleveland, Fort Worth and Andover, curators have opted, lamentably, to bypass New York. (Neither is it stopping in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New Orleans, so we’re in good company.) Fortunately, though, “The New Tide” is also available in book form, which in addition to Parks’ photos features copious biographical material and much pertinent background information. It is purchasable at Steidl.de.