Walking Between Known and Unknown

To survey Gordon Parks' lifework in photographs is to move through a landscape of visual extremes. Make way for a collision of conflicting events, attitudes and worldviews. In keeping with such visual discord and crack-up, the Dallas Museum of Art's exhibition Gordon Parks, Half Past Autumn: Selections from the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art is an exercise in radical juxtaposition. Images of unforgivable blight in the modern world contrast with fêtes galante of style as monochromatic images of an African-American family living in tumbledown poverty hang one gallery over from the punch and pop of a striding model swathed head to toe in orange organza. The pendulous swing of subject matter in his photographs is testament to Parks' life as a survivor-artist--his years working for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, as roving photojournalist at Life magazine and as rising celebrity film director. He's weathered impoverished life in rural Kansas, the roller-coaster bloody turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the creative perplexity of a polymath at work in the world.

In spite of it all, or because of it, Parks' work bears the self-assurance of acute skill coupled with personal tick and verve. One imagines the rhythm of the artist at work, Parks' own confident gait something like the smooth saunter of John Shaft, the righteously indignant hero of Parks' famed two-film series--Shaft (1971) and Shaft's Big Score (1972)--that launched an era of blaxploitation films. The smoothness of the walk belies the complexity of the man. Parks is a man of multiple talents and many imaginations. Like the layered meaning of this protagonist's name "Shaft"--a referent at once to the clever jibe and act of jibing, a beam of clarion light and the structural shank of a column, an erect rod and a man's sexual prowess--Parks is heaped with manifold gifts. Photography is just one of the many vistas of expression he's traveled over the years. A writer and composer in addition to photographer and film director, Parks is the proverbial Renaissance man. With bumps only early on, the road of his walk has been, like his photos, one of extremes. Parks summed up his approach to life succinctly when he said, "the guy who takes a chance, who walks between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure will succeed."

Originally organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Half Past Autumn is an overview of Parks' photography from the beginning of his career in the 1930s through the late 1960s. Skipping over the 1970s and '80s, there is a smattering of photographs on display made by the artist in the 1990s. The gap in coverage is abrupt, making for an unexplained hole in the otherwise continuous chronological jaunt through the artist's career as picture-maker. One wonders if the hiatus occurs because filmmaking or writing fiction and poetry encroached on his work as a photographer. The caesura unfortunately goes unexplained.

It becomes clear, though, that pivotal changes occurred in the artist's life during those years. Whereas the photographs before are notably realistic reportage and only rarely blurred or nonfigurative, those after are sheer art photography, images made abstract through intention, somber theatrical set-up and digital intervention. As Parks said in a recent interview, "you know, the camera is not meant just to show misery...with a camera you can show things that you like about the universe, things that you hate about the universe. It's capable of doing both." These later photographs add a different, if not more anemic and regurgitated, sense of know-how to the artist's overall oeuvre. With the sentimental lyricism of a clouded landscape and close-ups of crumpled leaves, they are for the most part bland examples of formulaic formalism. Practically speaking, we might correlate this more recent formal experimentation with profound success as there is little doubt that his hard-won economic comfort has something to do with the turn away from journalism toward forthright art photography. The abstract and arty moments of his earlier "non-art" photographs, however, result in better images. They are less burdened with authorial intention because of the chance nature of the documentary snapshot.

For Parks, the youngest of 14 children, life began under circumstances far different from his life today. After a brief bout of homelessness on the streets of St. Paul and several odd jobs, including piano player at a brothel, busboy and dining-car waiter, Parks bought his first camera, a Voigtlander Brilliant, in 1937 and made his name as a fashion photographer in St. Paul. A black-and-white photograph from this period, "Fashion, Frank Murphy's" (1940), shows a pursed-lipped model sitting at the center of a couch in a room wallpapered in rose bouquets connected by drooping chains of diamonds. She crosses her up-turned hands flaccidly in front and her skirt falls evenly in perfect symmetry on either side of the couch. Aside from the French-ified effect of her poise and the fleurs-de-lis on the wall, she is a picture of stoicism à la mode--restrained fashion in the American midlands just before the deluge of post-WWII economic exuberance and its accompanying consumerism.

This early fashion photography stands counterpoint to those he would shoot just two years later in Washington, D.C. Having moved to the country's capital to work for Roy Stryker and the FSA, an office set up under the auspices of the New Deal, Parks focused his image-capturing attention on brute American reality. Parks began documenting the life and plight of poor black Americans just on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. "Ella Watson and Her Grandchildren" (1942) is a brief narrative telling the story of deep poverty--of generational destitution in the land of opportunity. It is a tripartite composition in which Ms. Watson sits to the left in a cramped kitchen, grandchildren astride her lap. At the center of the picture is a photograph of a couple, presumably an older generation of the family (perhaps Ms. Watson and her husband?). Reflected in the mirror to the far right of the photo is apparently Ms. Watson's daughter looking wistfully at her mother with her children. In even more hard-hitting fashion, "American Gothic" (1942), Parks' take on the famed Grant Woods painting of the same title made in 1930, is a poignant distillation of American "freedom" shot through the prism of race and limited opportunity. Instead of a Puritan white couple standing, tools in hand, in front of their home, Parks photographed a black charwoman (who uncannily resembles Spike Lee) in front of a large American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. When submitted to the office, Stryker replied that the "picture could get us all fired." The truth hurts indeed.

After honing his picture-making chops under the aegis of Stryker, Parks was hired by Life magazine 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.

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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Charissa N. Terranova