Gordon Parks: Then and Now
By Frances Molina
Yesterday, Musée Magazine reported on Gordon Parks’ I am you exhibit which opened late last week at the Jack Shainman Gallery. In late recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in early celebration of Black History Month, Musée would like to take a moment to recognize Gordon Parks as a true vanguard, a revolutionary artist with one eye fixed on the mounting and mourning invisible masses.
Born into the poverty and unbridled racism of rural Kansas at the start of the 20th century, Parks navigated a bleak landscape of loss and violence with the guidance of his mother who taught him to value “love, dignity, and hard work over hatred” (A Choice of Weapons, Parks). At sixteen, he left for his sister’s home in St. Paul, Minnesota, the last wish of his dying mother. The next few years saw Parks working a variety of unsatisfying odd-jobs and side-hustles. One such job, working as a server on a railroad dining car, brought him face-to-face with his destiny in the form of a coworker’s photography magazine and a portfolio of striking photographs of migrant workers.
These photographs resonated deeply with Parks, who had never seen an image communicate so much with a single shot. They hummed with humanity, reaching out from a wellspring of emotion that inspired Parks to pick up a camera and teach himself the craft. Despite his lack of professional training, Parks pursued photography with a dedication and ambition that quickly landed him a spot alongside his photography heroes at the Farm Security Administration. He began his creative career as both a photojournalist and fashion photographer, working freelance for high profile glossies such as Vogue and Ebony.
Even with his freelance work in the high-fashion world Parks captured a signature aesthetic, shooting models in luxe, haute couture gowns and evening wear against the gritty backdrop of the city, an innovative approach to fashion photography that we recognize today as “street style”. But it was his time on staff at Life magazine that helped cement Parks as a photographic visionary and a cultural icon synonymous with a national black consciousness struggling and surviving in the face of systemic racism.
Parks photographed what he knew - the truth of the poverty and destitution that plagued Black America, the strength and resilience of their communities, the lives of those rendered invisible by a country reluctant to face its horrors, past and present. His work was a challenge to mainstream America, a subtle call for action and empathy, a fearless declaration of an unpleasant truth. At a time when our country is reeling from corruption and continually subjugated by racial and sexual violence, Parks creative legacy of compassion and social justice is immensely relevant.
In his Life editorial “A Harlem Family”, Parks begins with a prose-poem, speaking in a voice that transcends his time and his medium, reaching audiences today with urgency: “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...There is something about both of us that goes deeper...it is our common search for a better life, a better world.”