Gordon Parks Exhibit is Masterful

 Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950
Addison Gallery of American Art
Andover, MA
Through April 26, 2020

I’ve long had ambivalent feelings about Black History Month. First, it’s held in February, the shortest month. Second, it makes it seem as if black history is a diversion to be considered briefly and then pushed back to the margins. In the spirit of extending contemplation, let’s consider two exhibits that are so good that you will dwell upon them early and often.

First, there is a stunning display of photograph from Gordon Parks (1912-2006) at the Addison Gallery on the campus of Phillips Andover Academy. One might quibble over the identity
of the greatest African American photographer, but Parks is probably the most famous. He was self-taught and was just coming into his own around 1940. This was a heady time for working photographers. Parks began by shooting portraits and documenting street life in the Twin Cities and Chicago. He excelled at both. That’s not as easy as it sounds. As anyone who has tried to do serious camera work can attest, there is a world of difference between the formal demands of portraiture and capturing the spontaneous activities associated with everyday work, play, and domesticity.

Parks faced the additional challenge of making portraits of black subjects. He used back and white film stock, a medium that required careful balancing of light and shadow, especially the latter. Shadow is often the key to making a dramatic photo, but it takes skill to give enough shadow for impact but not so much as to lose definition in dark faces. Parks’ portraits were indeed masterful. They also imbued his subjects with great dignity, a quality he much preferred to whimsy. He brought that same approach to his street scenes. Some of those images are playful, but he always maintained the subjectivity of the people in his viewfinder. That is, they are unique individuals, not archetypal characters.

 Parks drew the attention and admiration of Roy Stryker, the powerful head of the New Deal’s photographical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Government work was a good gig to secure, even in the waning days of the Great Depression. Parks’ images can certainly stand up to those of more heralded white shutterbugs such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, or Margaret Bourke-White. He was also able to parlay his FSA assignments into new ones with the Office of War Information.

When World War II ended, new opportunities arose, including commercial promotional work for Standard Oil. Steady work was also available for picture-heavy publications such as Life, Look, Ebony, and Glamour. As much as by circumstance as by plan, Parks documented the lives and deeds of black luminaries who happened to be friends: from Langston Hughes to Marian Anderson and Richard Wright.

Again, though, he had an eye for dignifying subjects powerful and humble. Perhaps his most famous shot was his version of American Gothic, an African American cleaning woman at the US Capitol standing in front of a large American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. Ironic commentary was another Parks signature. In the case of American Gothic, few today realize that Parks got to know Ella Watson, his subject. He took many other pictures of Watson­–some of which appear in the exhibit­–and documented her heroism. Although she made just $2000 per year, Watson–a deeply religious woman–supported an adopted daughter and several grandchildren on her earnings.

Parks would go on to become a major voice speaking out against racial injustice. The Addison Gallery exhibit presagesreally sees– the humanity within a person, it becomes untenable to countenance violations of their personhood. The New Tide is a title suggestive of Parks’ career and political arc. It is a very powerful and large exhibit. Make your way to Andover to see it; be prepared to surrender to its might.
this aspect of his career in a subtle but powerful way. Once one sees–

Rob Weir

No comments: