Gordon Parks’ photographs keep history close. The late artist’s color images from Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee document the everyday life of Black Americans, set against a backdrop of segregation. His black-and-white renderings of protests, rallies and headlines point to a past that is still very much present.
These components of Parks‘ work are brought together in a two-part exhibition currently on view through Feb. 20 at both Jack Shainman Gallery locations in Chelsea. Titled “Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole,” the expansive exhibition draws on works from 1942 to 1970, and is curated in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation. At the 20th Street gallery, viewers will find images from Parks’ “Invisible Man” and “Segregation Story” series. The 24th Street space holds photographs from protests, with signs spelling out phrases such as “Police brutality must go” and “We are living in a police state.”
“The snatched-from-the-headlines quality of these images attest to the fact that our conflicts have not changed, but neither has the willingness to confront them,” Jelani Cobb wrote of the photographs in an essay that accompanies the exhibition. “There is nothing in Parks’ body of work that includes the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but it didn’t need to. He’d already shown that they do, minute after minute, across the void from his time to our own.”
Among the works included is Parks’ iconic “American Gothic” portrait of Ella Watson, a Black cleaning woman who the artist photographed holding an upturned mop and broom, echoing the composition of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting. There are also images of Margaret Burroughs, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. Across the two galleries, elegant photographs of hands holding books, cigarettes, teacups, newspapers and each other fill the frames.
Parks’ craft spanned genres to encompass photography, music, film and writing. After working for the Farm Security Administration and as a freelancer for outlets like Ebony and Vogue, the self-taught artist made history as the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine, where he stayed until the early 1970s. A celebrated film director, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his 1971 classic “Shaft.”
“We see Parks performing the same service for ensuing generations — rendering a visual shorthand for bigger questions and conflicts that dominated the times,” Cobb wrote. “Bearing witness.”
Top Image: Detail of "Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama," Gordon Parks. Copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.