Image Above: Portrait by Gordon Parks. All images courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation
A possible obstacle in understanding Gordon Parks’ series “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” nearly 60 years after its publication in Life Magazine is the illusion of distance. That figure - 60 years- while surprisingly close, is still far enough to remove the photographs from us, to neutralize them with historicity. A younger generation, comparing the world of these photographs superficially with the one in which it was raised, might see in them a society that’s foreign, even quaint, in its open expression of racism. To look at these photographs and muse about how far society has progressed, how stark the contrast between this world and the one strewn with “White/Colored Only” signs, in other words, to only allow these pictures historical relevance, not only does a disservice to Parks’ message, but is a profound, and dangerous, misunderstanding. Parks’ photographs, in many ways, are a more honest representation of our own time, and a more accurate dissection of the current American psyche, than most surface depictions would reveal.
©Gordon Parks (Left:American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942; Right: Malcom X at Rally, Chicago, Illinois, 1963).
For “The Restraints,” Parks followed three Alabaman families during the 1950s, at what was both the height and turning point of de jure segregation in the South. Jim Crow was still firmly in place, but what Parks’ photographs evidence is the fact that around this time, it was beginning to be seriously examined and questioned. The Thorton, Causey, and Tanner families are not among the cannon figures of the Civil Rights mythos, nor will these scenes of them buying ice cream, clothes shopping, or relaxing at home likely become part of the historical narrative of the movement. However, what Parks offers is something that bears an important relation to historical drama. Parks reveals how segregation was experienced on the level of the everyday, through the personal narratives of these three families. Whereas history casts a reductive eye on events, pitting protagonists against antagonists, with a clear set of themes, motives, and vocabulary terms, lived experience is much less sensational. Parks’ photographs not only show how public spaces were divided but also the gray areas where these divisions prove themselves inept and absurd. History divides; Parks opens opportunities to unify.
©Gordon Parks, Drinking Fountains, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.
Parks focused on the arena of the everyday, which he showed as being not only a stage for subjugation and separation, but also a place where experience is shared. If part of the original purpose of Parks’ series was to bring a white audience into intimacy with the black population from which it had separated itself, to restore a human ordinariness to the lives of people exoticized by segregation, then this purpose is still relevant today if in a slightly different form. Parks’ pictures offer a sense of the mundanity of how segregation was experienced. For the people in these photographs, segregation was something engrained into their day. “White/ Colored” signs were heeded like traffic signs or, perhaps more analogously, gendered bathrooms. Part of the value of these photographs today is their role as a reminder that the form in which discrimination flourishes is routine. There it remains unnoticed, and therefore unquestioned and uncontested. Consider the series’ title: it not only differentiates restraints that are “open” and those that are “hidden;” it also suggests that some restraints are both “open and hidden.” Because they are so routinely encountered, they make up a default reality, and are thus openly hidden.
©Gordon Parks (Left: At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile Alabama, 1956.; Right: Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956).
Often, it is only in looking back after 60 years that we realize just how glaring an injustice was. Borders drawn on public spaces can be redrawn; borders drawn on the consciousness of a society are not so easily undone. The signs that once divided the public across racial lines have been outlawed, but this doesn’t touch the deeper problem, which is that their message has been internalized and continues to influence the experience of people raised in this country. Segregation has not been eradicated; it has mutated into something more difficult to identify, and more difficult to photograph. Gordon Parks’ pictures may no longer reflect the exterior landscape of American public space, but they have gained value as X-rays of a country still sick with the legacy of its racist policies. Understanding Parks’ photographs means not sanctioning them off to a departed era of history. It means realizing that these seemingly departed eras are also separated by borders that don’t actually exist, and that the practices of a previous generations are not contained within them. These practices seep into the succeeding generations. By turning his camera on the everyday experience of segregation, Gordon Parks brought visibility to a social problem that was both open and hidden, something the work still has the power to do.
©Gordon Parks (Left: Untitled, Mobile Alabama, 1956; Right: Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile Alabama, 1956).
by Conor O’brien