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Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks

May 9 - August 3, 2008

 

The Saint Louis Art Museum is presenting Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks, a retrospective exhibition of more than 50 photographs representing the finest works of the artist's prolific career. These images were selected by Parks himself before his death in 2006. (right: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; American Gothic, 1942, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 24 x 20 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.05 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Few photographers offer a record of 20th-century life as candid and provocative as Gordon Parks. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, he began working professionally in the early 1940s. He generated one of his most enduring images, American Gothic, in 1942 as part of a documentary project in Washington, D.C. The photograph is a reference to Grant Wood's famous painting of the same name and depicts a black cleaning woman holding a broom against a backdrop of an American flag. The image conveys the hardship of the woman's life and the unfulfilled promise of equality for African Americans.

From 1948-1972, Parks served as staff photographer for LIFE magazine. With a straightforward and sympathetic eye, he investigated a range of pressing social issues including crime and urban decay in Harlem, segregation in Alabama, disease in the slums of Brazil and the struggle for civil rights by the Black Muslims. Parks dramatized these issues through his portrayal of the day-to-day struggles of individuals and families that he grew to know well. Parks firmly believed in the power of the camera to shed light on social inequity.

Throughout his career, Parks also composed images of fashion models, musicians, writers, artists, actors and sports figures for publications such as Vogue. The exhibition features portraits of several celebrities including Ingrid Bergman, Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali.

Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

 

Wall text from the exhibition

Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks
 
Gordon Parks was an artist of many media: photographer, composer, filmmaker, and author. As a photographer, he created one of the most candid and provocative records of 20th century life. He tackled issues of racism and poverty in photo-essays on the pages of Life, the largest-circulation picture magazine of its day. In addition, he took exemplary pictures of celebrities, musicians, artists, and fashion models. This retrospective exhibition-comprised of 54 images selected by Parks himself before his death in 2006-represents the greatest achievements of his distinguished career.
 
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks began working professionally in the early 1940s. He firmly believed in the power of the camera to shed light on social inequity, having overcome barriers of prejudice in his own life. Parks was the first African American to work for the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information, and Life magazine. With a straightforward and sympathetic eye, he investigated a range of pressing social issues including racial segregation, urban decay, and the fight for civil rights. Parks dramatized these issues through his portrayal of the day-to-day struggles of individuals and families that he grew to know well.
 
Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by generous support from The Capital Group Foundation, the Cantor Arts Center's Hohbach Family Fund, and Cantor Arts Center's Members. This exhibition's presentation at the Saint Louis Art Museum is made possible by Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation.
 
 
Gordon Parks: Chronology
 
1912 ­ Born November 30, Fort Scott, Kansas
1938 ­ Purchases first camera in Seattle, Washington
1940 ­ Receives first professional photography job as a fashion photographer for a boutique in St. Paul, Minnesota
1941 ­ Creative Photography exhibition at the South Side Community Center, Chicago, Illinois
1942 ­ Awarded the first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for photography
1942-43 ­ Photographer for the Farm Security Administration
1943-44 ­ War correspondent photographer for the Office of War Information
1944-48 ­ Corporate photographer for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey
1947-48 ­ Publishes the technical manuals Flash Photography and Camera Portraits:
The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture
1948-72 ­ First African-American staff photographer for Life magazine
1970-73 ­ Founding editor of Essence magazine
1971 ­ Directs the film Shaft
1988 ­ Awarded National Medal of Honor
1997 ­ Retrospective exhibition Half Past Autumn at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
2006 ­ Dies March 6, New York City

 


 

Additional images from the exhibition

 

(above: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; Muhammad Ali, 1970, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 24 x 20 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.47 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

 

(above: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; Mrs. Jefferson, Fort Scott, 1949, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 20 x 16 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.46 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

 

(above: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, 1949, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 16 x 20 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.35 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

 

(above: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; Children with Doll (Ella Watson's Grandchildren), 1942, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 11 x 14 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.13 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

 

(above: Gordon Parks, American, 1912-2006; Black Muslim Rally, New York, 1963, printed 2003; gelatin silver print; 16 x 20 inches; Lent by The Capital Group Foundation, 2002.09 © 2006 The Gordon Parks Foundation)

 


 

Object labels from the exhibition

Albia and Isabel, the Favela, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.173
 
 
Battered Man, 1943, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.177
 
 
Black Muslim Rally, New York, 1963, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.179
 
 
Black Muslim Schoolchildren in Chicago, 1963, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.180
 
 
Boy with June Bug, 1963, printed 2003
dye destruction print
 
2008.183
 
 
Brothers of the Killers Selected to Judge (Malcolm X Asleep on the Airplane), 1963, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.184
 
 
Children with Doll (Ella Watson's Grandchildren), 1942, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.185
 
 
Drugstore Cowboys, Blind River, Ontario, 1945, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.188
 
 
Family in Their Living Room, Fort Scott, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.194
 
 
Flavio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.198
 
 
Flavio Feeding Zacarias, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.200
 
 
Fontenelle Children Outside Their Harlem Tenement, 1967, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
 
2008.202
 
 
Frisco Railway Station, Fort Scott, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.203
 
 
Gambling Woman, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.204
 
 
Gang Member with Brick, 1948, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.205
 
 
Grease Plant Worker, 1945, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.206
 
 
Harlem Street Scene with Fire Escape and Children Playing in Water, c.1943, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.208
 
 
Isabel beside Sick Father, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.213
 
 
Man with Straw Hat, Washington, D.C., 1942, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.221
 
 
Mother and Children, Birmingham, Alabama, 1956, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.223
 
 
Muhammad Ali, c.1970, printed 2003
dye destruction print
 
2008.226
 
 
Muhammad Ali after Cooper Fight in London (Hands), 1966, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.227
 
 
Night Rumble, 1948, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.229
 
 
Norman Sr., 1967, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.231
 
 
Storefront, Alabama, 1956, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.236
 
 
Tenement Dwellers, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.238
 
 
Willie Causey's Son with Gun During Violence in Alabama, 1956, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.242
 
 
Eastern State Exposition, Parents Watching Their Children on a Ferris Wheel, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1947
gelatin silver print
 
Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Shop Fund 196:1989
 
 
Ice Cream Parlor, Ontario, 1945, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.210
 
 
Norman Jr. Reading in Bed, 1967, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
2008.230
 
 
Life magazine, June 16, 1961
 
 
Ella Watson and Her Grandchildren, 1942, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Parks photographed Ella Watson in her home and as she traveled throughout her neighborhood. In this complex portrait, Parks skillfully incorporated four generations into one image. On the left, Watson sits in her kitchen surrounded by her grandchildren. On the right, her adopted daughter sits in the adjacent bedroom and appears as a reflection in the mirror, while a framed photograph of Watson's parents rests on the dressing table.
 
2008.191
 
 
Harlem Street at the Lord's Cross, 1943, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
A suspended cross silhouetted against a whitened sky serves as the focal point of this Harlem street scene. It reflects Parks's sense of the quiet dominance of religion in that community. In his autobiography, A Hungry Heart, Parks said of his first impressions of Harlem: "Churches, churches and churches. Harlem seemed to be stuffed with religion."
 
2008.207
 
 
Red Jackson, 1948, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
The face of the 16-year-old gang leader Red Jackson is dramatically silhouetted as he peers out of a shattered window. At the time the photograph was taken, both he and Parks were hiding out in an abandoned building after being chased by a rival gang. Parks depicts an urban environment that is both menacing and bleak. With images such as this, Parks brought a unique visual drama as well as a sense of gritty authenticity to the genre of photojournalism.
 
2008.232
 
 
Untitled, from the series Gang Wars in Harlem, New York City, 1948, printed 1963
gelatin silver print
 
Using the car window as a frame, Parks takes the position of an outsider looking at the Harlem neighborhood. Parks shows men and women walking on a sidewalk, though few of the figures interact. Debris on the street suggests the neglect that plagued the once vibrant neighborhood.
 
Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Daniel L. Schlafly 197:1989
 
 
Emerging Man, 1952, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Parks's photo of a figure tentatively rising out of a manhole was inspired by Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952). This famous book concerns an African American who lives alone in an underground room and is not acknowledged by society. Parks's photo-staged in collaboration with Ellison-evokes the sense of marginalization and isolation. Yet, the title Parks gave the image suggests the possibility of a better future for African Americans.
 
2008.192
 
 
Drinking Fountains, Birmingham, Alabama, 1956, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Framing the message of segregation-"colored only"-between a mother and her daughter, Parks points to the daily injustices suffered by southern blacks. He took this photo clandestinely from inside a car because his life had been threatened while on this assignment. White supremacists did not want the segregated conditions of Birmingham displayed on the pages of Life magazine.
 
2008.187
 
 
The da Silva Shack in the Favela of Catacumba, Rio de Janeiro, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
In 1961 while working for Life, Parks traveled to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, an area known as the Favela. He documented the plight of the da Silvas, a couple with six young children: Albia, Flavio, Mario, Luzia, Zacarias, and Isabel (who is seen in the foreground of this image). The photo-essay that Parks generated from his work in Brazil, "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty," became one of his best-known projects. The article portrays poverty as a universal enemy that crosses racial and geographic boundaries.
 
2008.241
 
 
Flavio da Silva after Asthma Attack, the Favela, 1961, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
In "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty" Parks focused particularly on Flavio, the da Silva's malnourished and asthmatic son. The gritty directness with which Parks photographed Flavio's gaunt body and filthy living conditions drew sympathy from Life's readers, spurring them to donate more than $30,000 for his care. Parks kept in touch with Flavio and his family, writing a documentary film about them in 1964 and a biography entitled Flavio in 1978.
 
2008.197
 
 
Malcolm X Addressing Black Muslim Rally, Chicago, 1963, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little (1925-1965), was a Black Muslim minister and outspoken member of the Nation of Islam who advocated black pride and self-reliance. This image was part of the photographic essay on Malcolm X and the Black Muslims that ran in Life on May 31, 1963, accompanied by Parks's essay, "What Their Cry Means to Me: A Negro's Own Evaluation."
 
2008.219
 
 
Ethel Shareiff in Chicago, 1963, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
As the daughter of the Nation of Islam's iconic leader Elijah Muhammad, Ethel Shareiff was the head of the women's training corps until her death in 2004. In this image she stands proudly at the apex of the Muslim Girls in Training & General Civilization Class whose members dress identically in modest white uniforms. Photographing her as the only figure in focus, Parks shows Shareiff's importance and allows her to stand in for the women of the Nation of Islam as a whole.
 
2008.193
 
 
At the Poverty Board: Bessie and Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr., and Ellen [Fontenelle], 1967, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Life published Parks's photo-essay "The Negroes and the Cities: The Cry That Will Be Heard," on March 8, 1968. The article, which Parks both photographed and narrated, chronicled the life of the poverty-stricken Fontenelle family of Harlem as they struggled to make ends meet. To make this haunting group portrait, Parks followed mother and children to the antipoverty office and stood behind an official's desk, capturing the expressions of despair and resignation on their faces.
 
2008.176
 
 
Bessie and Little Richard the Morning after She Scalded Her Husband, 1967, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
After showing aspects of family life in the Fontenelle's bleak tenement, Parks's photo-essay concluded with an episode of spousal abuse. In response to being beaten by her husband, Bessie threw scalding water at him, necessitating a visit to the emergency room. This image shows Bessie lying in bed with her son Richard, one arm raised to her face in a gesture of profound despondency. As Parks observed, this is "just one of the thousands of violences that explode in the ghetto every week."
 
2008.178
 
 
Black Panther Headquarters, Berkeley, California, 1969, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
The Black Panther Party engaged in an often militant struggle to promote civil rights and self-defense for African Americans. Parks had been invited to join the group, but declined on the grounds that it would compromise his journalistic objectivity. Instead, he said that he would fight against oppression with his camera, his "weapon of choice."
 
2008.181
 
 
Eldridge Cleaver and Wife, Kathleen, with Portrait of Huey Newton, Algiers, 1970, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Eldridge Cleaver was the spokesman for the Black Panther Party. Faced with criminal charges after a gunfight between the Panthers and the Oakland police in 1968, Cleaver fled the United States and became a fugitive. He lived for a time in Algiers where Gordon Parks made this potent image of his defiance.
 
2008.190
 
 
Langston Hughes, Chicago, 1941, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a prolific poet, novelist, and playwright. He focused on the lives of blacks in America. Permeating his work is pride in African American identity and its diverse culture. This portrait was taken early in Parks's career while he was living in Chicago, and shows him experimenting with dramatic lighting and unusual composition to interpret his sitter's character.
 
2008.216
 
 
Duke Ellington Listening to Playback, Los Angeles, 1960, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974), also known as "Duke," was an American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader. In this image Parks suggests Ellington "live" and Ellington "in playback" by showing the musician along with his reflection on the underside of the piano cover.
 
2008.189
 
 
Leonard Bernstein, New York, 1955, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
As a composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) had a dramatic impact on the popular audience's appreciation of classical music in the second half of the 20th century. His own work as a composer, particularly his scores for Broadway musicals such as West Side Story, helped forge a new relationship between classical and popular music. Parks took this image of an elegant and confident Bernstein on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
 
2008.217
 
 
Aaron Copland, New York, 1955, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was best known for his musical scores for ballets dealing with American subject matter, such as Appalachian Spring (1944). Copland forged a uniquely American style of composition, achieving a balance between classical composition and folk music. By placing Copland in a formal suit before a weathered barn, Parks was able to encapsulate the juxtaposition that made the composer's music so distinctive.
 
 
2008.171
 
 
Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1951, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was a Swiss sculptor, painter, draftsman, and printmaker. For this moody portrait, Parks photographed the artist at his Paris studio, surrounded by his characteristically elongated sculpture.
 
2008.172
 
 
Muhammad Ali, 1970, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
This intimate post-fight photograph of Ali was part of a Life cover story. Parks documented the fighter's return to boxing after a three-year exile forced upon Ali when he refused military induction on religious grounds. Rather than the cocky image that Ali promoted early in his career, Parks captured a world-weary man struggling to regain his rightful place as world champion.
2008.225
 
 
Fashion, c.1962, printed 2003
chromogenic print
 
This image of a model, dramatically posed in a dark doorway to emphasize the sensuous red of her dress, is representative of the bold fashion photography that Parks produced in the 1950s and 60s. He began his career as a fashion photographer, and freelanced for Vogue and Glamour at the same time that he worked on journalistic projects for Life.
 
2008.195
 
 
Life magazine, November 1, 1948
 
The first of Parks's photo-essays to appear in Life with his name as author was a ten-page spread with 19 photographs. The story, "Harlem Gang Leader," concerned Red Jackson, his family, and his gang, and it included images of street fighting. The story provoked a strong response from Life's readership and underscored Parks's access to a milieu that few white photographers could enter.
 
 
American Gothic (Ella Watson), 1942, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
In 1941 Gordon Parks was awarded a fellowship to work with Roy Stryker, director of the arts program for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. There Parks met Ella Watson, a cleaning woman who worked at the FSA. She and members of her family became the subject of over 90 of his earliest photographs.
 
For this image, Parks positioned Watson in front of an American flag and named the photograph American Gothic, a reference to Grant Wood's famous 1930 painting of the same title. In this version, the protagonist is not a white farming couple but a black urban worker, and she is portrayed not with a pitchfork but with a broom.
 
Parks was inspired to compose this portrait in response to the racial bigotry and intolerance that he encountered in Washington, D.C. One can read the frustrations and hardships of Watson's life in her solemn gaze. At the same time, the juxtaposition of Watson and her broom against the flag alludes to the unfulfilled promise of equality for African Americans.
 
2008.175
 
Mrs. Jefferson, Fort Scott, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children of a tenant farmer. When his mother died in 1928, Parks was sent to Minneapolis to live with one of his sisters. In 1949, he was dispatched back to his hometown by Life for a story on the lives of his junior high school classmates. Though many of his childhood friends had left Fort Scott, Parks spent a fruitful period documenting other members of the community.
 
The elderly sitter in this portrait is Lucy Jefferson, a friend of Gordon Parks's mother. Looking upward, the photographer's vantage point lends a stoic dignity to Jefferson, while the natural lighting imbues her face with a quiet radiance. Yet, the wrinkled lines on her hands speak to a lifetime of hard work, and the unadorned setting shows her meager living conditions. Though he grew up amidst poverty and segregation, Parks always valued his early life in Kansas, a place his mother Sarah called "the learning tree." It was these words that Parks used to title his autobiographical novel of 1963 and film of 1969.
 
2008.224
 
 
Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, 1949, printed 2003
gelatin silver print
 
Parks's photograph captures a moment of encounter when three Sicilian women stop to look with open curiosity at the actress Ingrid Bergman. Feeling their gaze, she waits for them to move on. The image draws its taut visual power in part from the contrast between Bergman, dressed in a plain white blouse, and the older women who loom in the background in their traditional black garb.
 
Bergman's fame was based on her reputation, on-screen and off, as the embodiment of virtuous beauty. Yet, while still married in 1949, she began an affair with the also married director Roberto Rossellini. Parks's photograph, taken when Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini's child, has come to represent the tension between Bergman and a critical public.
 
2008.211


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

 

TFAO suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Gordon Parks: Photographer and Artist. Available through Currier Museum of Art.

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. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center 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.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

 

TFAO suggests this book:

Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks, By Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks, Jr., Maren Stange. Published 2007 by Skira. Documentary photography / Exhibitions. 111 pages. ISBN:8876248021. Google Books says: "Novelist, memoirist, poet, film director, choreographer, and musician, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was renowned as a man of many talents. He is best known as a photographer, a career he took up in the 1930s. Starting with fashion and portraiture, he honed his skill and his passion for documenting social ills working for the New Deal's Farm Security Administration. During World War II he became the first black photographer employed by the War Office of Information. After the war, he became Life magazine's first black staff photographer and established an international reputation publishing images and photo-essays that helped transform and liberalize American society by informing Americans about the plight of the urban poor. Maren Stange, an authority on documentary photography, provides an introduction to his work, surveying his career and analyzing the distinguished qualities of his compelling images. This catalog accompanies the traveling exhibition organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University." (right: front cover, Bare Witness: Photographs, photo courtesy Google Books)

 

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