Gordon Parks captured American life in all of its hues
by David Bonetti
St. Louis Dispatch
What do you call someone who makes photographs; directs films; writes novels, memoirs and poetry; composes music; paints pictures; and plays an active role in the political and cultural life of his time?
They used to call such a person a Renaissance man. We might call him a Gordon Parks.
Parks (1912-2006) was born the youngest of 15 children, to a poor African-American family in Fort Scott, Kan. Before he died, he was living on Park Avenue, the partner of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. You can’t go any higher in American society than that.
Parks’ life could be the source material for a retelling of the classic Horatio Alger story of a poor boy who makes good by dint of working hard and being honest. Because his mother told him not to think he couldn’t do something just because he was black, he worked doubly hard to achieve any goal he set for himself.
His attainments were many and historically significant. He was not only the first black employee to work for Life magazine, but also, by the time it folded in 1972, its highest-paid contract photographer. And in 1969, he was the first African-American to write and direct a major Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree.” He also wrote its score.
Today, Parks is best remembered for another movie, “Shaft” (1971), the story of a Harlem detective that launched a blizzard of blaxploitation films, and for his photojournalism.
Many of his forays into composing symphonies, writing poetry, and fooling around with abstract photography and painting were unsuccessful experiments at self-expression by a man who never got over his lack of education and the prejudice he had to overcome to get anything done.
Fortunately, “Bare Witness” is a tribute to his finest photojournalism. It features the gritty black-and-white prints he took to tell disturbing stories of urban poverty and segregation, as well as suave images of fashion models, society swells and celebrities. He was equally good at both extremes of photojournalism’s mission to tell the news.
In his work, Parks might document prejudice, but he never approached a subject prejudicially. He was a true objective observer; he might rail against segregation but, in his work, he kept his anger to himself.
He was invited to join the Communist Party in the 1940s, and he was asked by Eldridge Cleaver to become minister of information for the Black Panther Party during the 1970s. He turned down both. He was and remained a patriotic American, politically a centrist.
Parks first made an impression with fashion photography. Dress designer Marva Louis, boxer Joe Louis’ wife, saw his work and gave the ambitious youngster an opportunity to produce her image. Commissions from chic Chicagoans, black and white, followed.
Soon he won a fellowship to go to Washington, where he worked for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency that sent a legion of photographers across the nation to take pictures of its proud citizens — wounded by the Depression and rallying to fight a world war most of them didn’t want any more than they did the Depression.
From there it was Life, Hollywood and the larger world.
Parks continued to take fashion, society and celebrity pictures; he wasn’t a late convert to such subject matter — it was how he started out.
The show includes stunning images of Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, to remind you of his skill at making beautiful people look good.
Perhaps the chicest of the chic is a double portrait of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in their Algerian exile, a picture of Huey Newton ala Che Guevara hanging on the wall behind them. (For those who don’t remember, they were the Black Panther Party elite.)
But the most memorable pictures here are images taken from the important photo-essays he made with the FSA in 1942-43 and for Life from 1948 to 1972.
There’s an iconic 1942 image of black charwoman Ella Watson posed like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” but with a broom and a mop in her hands as she stands in front of an American flag. FSA director Roy Stryker didn’t like it because he thought it was unsubtle. Parks later admitted that he agreed.
Less known and more powerful are images Parks took of Watson at home, with three generations of her family, in her crowded Washington tenement.
Parks matched that heart-wrenching series with a 1967 story he did on an impoverished family in Harlem. The picture he took of an exhausted Bessie Fontenelle and her four frightened children during their moment at the city’s poverty board says everything there is to be said of human misery and bureaucratic indifference.
The most touching in its humanism is a 1961 series Parks made of an asthmatic boy named Flavio in the mountainside slums of Rio de Janeiro. In one unforgettable image, the fragile, dirt-smeared child strikes a graceful pose reminiscent of Murillo’s 17th century paintings of street beggars.
Although Life readers rallied to raise money to bring the boy to the United States for medical treatment and to support his family when he returned, that image suggests that nothing really changes.