Michael C. Carlos Museum

Emory University / Atlanta, GA




Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks


The Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emery University presents "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" through April 30, 2000 . The revealing and thought-provoking retrospective exhibition, organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., brings together for the first time Parks's achievements as filmmaker, novelist, poet, musician and photographer.

With good reason, Gordon Parks has been described as "an American Renaissance man." Museum Director Anthony Hirschel says, "The Carlos Museum is delighted to be able to present to the Atlanta-area audience a compelling overview of one of the great figures of 20th-century American cultural life. Visitors' experience of Gordon Parks's towering achievements will resonate long after they leave the exhibition. We are pleased that we can share with the community work of such importance."

Parks, 87, is best known as a photojournalist using his camera as a "weapon against poverty and racism." He was the first African-American photographer for Life magazine, working as a world correspondent for two decades. But photography is just one aspect of Parks's prolific and multi-faceted career.

"Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" features a vast selection of black-and-white and color photographs representing Parks's major series from 1940 through 1997, combined with his books, music, film, and poetry. As described by exhibition co-curator Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran, " 'Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks' is a record of one artist's creative search for humanity in the face of intolerance. Parks's art is about pressing social issues, such as poverty, race, segregation, and crime, while it also enhances our understanding of beauty, nature, landscape, childhood, music, fashion, and memory." The presentation at the Carlos Museum brings together many of his photographs along with his work as a filmmaker, (he directed numerous documentaries, features, plus popular action films such as Shaft ), his books (he has written five books based on his life), his numerous volumes of poetry and his music, which includes a symphony, sonatas, concertos and a ballet.

"This intelligently conceived retrospective of the art and the imagination of Gordon Parks, a major figure in 20th century photography, is an opening into several discrete and paradoxically overlapping realities," says on-site curator Dr. Rudolph Byrd, director of African American Studies at Emery University. "In photographs that span Parks's rich and varied career, we are given images that function as testimony of the paradoxes and contradictions of race, identity, culture and politics in the United States as well as the meaning of being an American within the broad political and cultural context of the Americas."

"Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" eloquently presents the diverse range of Parks's work -- which itself echoes the balance and tension inherent in modern society. Parks overcame a background of racism and poverty to become an influential photographer in the 1940s and 1950s, working for example as a photojournalist and fashion photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942, remains one of Parks's most famous photographs, from a series of pictures detailing the life of Ella Watson, a government-employed African-American cleaning woman. Haunting images such as this stand in sharp contrast to Parks's fashion photographs. As Brookman notes, "Parks was able to fluidly move back and forth between various dichotomies -- black and white, rich and poor, politics and entertainment, journalism and art, truth and fiction -- to observe and report his feelings."

In his autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, Parks wrote, "My experience -- though I would never wish it upon anyone else -- has helped make me whatever I am and still hope to be. I have come to understand that hunger, hatred, and love are the same wherever you find them, and it is that understanding that now helps me escape the past that once imprisoned me." By presenting the world as seen through the eyes of Gordon Parks, the exhibition "Half Past Autumn" reveals the depth and breadth of his experiences and his extraordinary life.

Ella Watson and her Grandchildren, Washington, D.C., 1942, gelatin silver print

In and of itself, this photograph is an engaging and informative document. What makes it all the more significant, however, is that it is part of the sustained essay - 85 images total - that Parks made about Ella Watson the person, behind American Gothic, Washington, D.C. By following Mrs. Watson through her life at home, her life in her church, as well as her life at work, noting "her small happinesses and daily frustrations," Parks has made the Invisible presence, visible and identifiable." (Natanson, p.178) In this image Parks probes the icon for the person within, and at the same time, puts a face on the nation's ills. It is interesting to note that at the time these photographs were shot, Parks ran contrary to tradition by including the names of the featured individuals in the captions. Poverty was no longer nameless.

Ella Watson lived in a typical small, deteriorating apartment with her adopted daughter and three grandchildren. A single, female head of household she left home at 5:30 pm - just as most people are coming home - to toil anonymously for the federal government, cleaning buildings. The story documents simply and effectively the effects of bigotry and racism through the faces of Mrs. Watson, her family, friends and neighbors, as well as in their decaying neighborhood, right there in the shadows of the Capitol, the seat of democracy. It is important to consider the degree of trust the photographer must have inspired on the part of his sitters to be able to create this narrative.

Compositionally astute, Parks invites us to compare and contrast two scenes within the same frame. To the left of a space divided by a wall and a glimpse out the back door, Watson and her grandchildren are posed easily in the crowded kitchen after the family meal. Alone this could be almost any Depression-era picture. What alters it, and contributes to its brilliance, is the image of Watson's adopted daughter reflected in the mirror over the bureau on the right. This half of the photograph is almost surreal, and in contrast with the stark realism of the kitchen scene. Self-contained and withdrawn, the younger woman seems to be looking wistfully at the framed photograph of Watson's parents. It is as if both faces of Ella Watson - the young girl with dreams and the older, more realistic woman - are presented to us simultaneously.

Spanish Fashion, 1950, gelatin silver print

Gordon Parks is not easily deterred. The official beginning of Parks's career in fashion dates from the afternoon that he persuaded the wife of the owner of Frank Murphy's, the most fashionable store in St. Paul, that he could photograph fashion. He admits telling Madeline Murphy that he had no examples to show her but, when asked why he thought he could do this, he replied, "Because I know I can. That's all." She must have sensed something special in him because she suggested that he come back after the store closed the next day to shoot some evening dresses. Parks scrambled to borrow lights, bulbs, films and even a camera from a friend. Instinct, lighting techniques gleaned from those hours pouring over Vogue magazine and earnest good will on the part of all participants got him through the project. In spite of an awkward moment when he realized that the models appeared upside down on the camera glass, Parks was undaunted and bluffed on through. Later that night, when processing the film Parks discovered that he had double-exposed almost every picture. His wife Sally cleverly suggested that he blow up the one good image for presentation to Mrs. Murphy. It must have been an extremely successful photograph, for, even after admitting the mistake, he continued with a sportswear shoot.

Later in New York Parks returned to fashion photography. Through the photographer Edward Steichen, he was hired by Alexander Liberman, editor of Vogue, to photograph a collection of evening gowns in 1944. Through years of freelancing as a fashion photographer, Parks never lost his commitment to photojournalism and the potential of the camera as a tool to reveal and combat inequity. When Parks published his first major photographic essay in Life magazine, the Harlem gang story that featured Red Jackson, he noted, "Suddenly for me two extremely diverse worlds were about to converge. One of crime, the other of high fashion." And then in 1350 he was off to Paris with Life's fashion editor to cover the spring collections.

Looking at this romantic image, one is reminded how much the art of fashion involves texture. Lighting the figure from the upper right, Parks allows the surfaces to unfold rhythmically. Each texture is sensuously explored: the crisp pleats of the sleeve contrast with the richly tooled gold of the jewelry and the satin smoothness of the model's skin. An alternating pattern of dark and light invite the viewer's scrutiny of every facet and plane. The cumulative effect of this carefully contained image, with its 3/4 figure and triangular composition is hauntingly reminiscent of Italian Renaissance madonnas, such as those of Raphael in Florence's Pitti Palace. More than a fashion shot, it becomes a portrait.

Travelers, 1995, Iris ink jet print

In this fiery hour when dawn awakens,
dew-scrubbed and draped
in its sensuous gowns,
let us walk without disquiet
through the wrenching valleys.
Let our desires be great,
so great that we go on without
remembering the bitter pool
of gray mornings through which
our distraught feet have waded.
No, we are not to punish one moment
by damning all those uneasy moons
that passed darkly over us
during so many impatient nights.
They were lit by faltering souls.
Always just a few steps ahead
prowls the sorcerer.
He will, without doubt,
keep trying to ensnare us.
But the vexations of yesterday
should send us past him without a word,
moving us toward events of the daily round -
with dignity in our silence.

Gordon Parks

Made possible by Ford Motor Company and Time Warner Inc., "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" is being presented at 17 venues by the Corcoran's national touring program. Additional support is provided by the Glen Eagles Foundation, Cone-Laumont Editions, Ltd., Laumont Labs, and Time Life Photo Laboratories. In Atlanta, the presentation of "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" and its related programs are underwritten by the corporate sponsorship of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.

See our prior article concerning the Norton Museum of Art exhibition: Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks (10/14/99)


RL readers may further enjoy

this online video:

from Brightcove.tv a Jan 9, 2007 video tribute to Gordon Parks (5:45)

and this VHS video:

Half Past Autumn: The Life and Art of Gordon Parks Profiles Gordon Parks (b. 1912) and his multifaceted, lifelong career in the arts. Best known, as a photojournalist with LIFE magazine, Mr. Parks has documented the plight of the poor, the lives of the famous, and the looks of the fashion elite. 12-minute video. [2] Available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.

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rev. 10/29/07

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