Walking Between Known and Unknown

The photos of Gordon Parks register a world of opposites and extremes

After honing his picture-making chops under the aegis of Stryker, Parks was hired by Lifemagazine and spent the next 20 years working on a diverse array of assignments, from documenting poverty in Brazil and gang warfare in Harlem to shooting fashionistas in Paris and celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman, Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand. The series of photographs Parks made while on an assignment in Chicago during the late '50s is striking in its cutthroat honesty. Sent out to document policemen and detectives in search of criminals, Parks captured the mean streets of one cop-duo's gory Chicago beat. In this series, he deploys brash and heady contrasts in order to create a rocky photo narrative. One image shows a gloved doctor suturing an open blood-spattered scalp wound, while another, in a slightly more poetic vein, depicts a gun in silhouette held by an anonymous man in a dark hallway.

Gordon Parks' "Spring Fashions"
Gordon Parks' "Spring Fashions"

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is on display through September 4 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 214-922-1200.

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As documentary photographs, Parks' work is an unromantic reminder of life as it used to be. A color photograph taken in 1956 shows a woman and her daughter in full Sunday dress at the back door--the "colored entrance"--of a department store. This, like so many of his shots, is a poetic yet forcefully stubborn reminder of a life of horror, hypocrisy and regret--one we are wont to willfully unknow, but, as his photos beckon, one we must not forget.

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