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Gordon Parks: Collected Works of an Alien Afloat In Genius

By Brad Feuerhelm on December 2, 2017

” Gordon Parks was first described to me as a renaissance man for his enduring and unfailing talent behind a lens. I think in those terms adding to this moniker Renaissance Alien would not be incorrect.”

There are certain people in this world in which there is no other possible recourse but to name them as alien. This state of alien as it were has little to do with the outward appearance in which they cast. It has everything to do with their will and ability. Gordon Parks was first described to me as a renaissance man for his enduring and unfailing talent behind a lens. I think in those terms adding to this moniker Renaissance Alien would not be incorrect. How does one even begin to compare a body of work like Gordon Park’s? This self-imposed task is nearly impossible.

Obvious are his talents to compose a picture, to insinuate himself with a un-erring pathos in which his sitters feel compelled to deliver everything in the confines of small film negative frame. We can simply name Ella Watson the sitter of Park’s perhaps best known work “American Gothic” as point in case. As referenced in the first volume of essays and early works by Parks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us that Ms. Watson, an African American Governmental Janitor, who exemplified the African American experience, was much more than this and you can see it. Having lost her father to the incipit tentacle of the lynch rope, her agony would also endure the violent murder of her husband and the loss of her own daughter in childbirth to two illegitimate children. The blank stare behind the befuddled head of a mop with nascent potential of life with a back drop of stars and stripes exemplified not only African American struggle, but also the deep and scarring ramifications of their instrumentality in a country built on the blood and sweat of her forefathers and mothers-and yet, the stoic façade and the history behind the eyes calcified everything in one shared moment with a trusted pair of eyes and behind the apparatus of examination.

Parks ability to render social issues, environment and the blood of a people in living tissue solidified by the compounds of light, silver and celluloid were not only brave, but also perhaps alien to most of our ability. That he went on to write books, composed music, make films, notably SHAFT are but few of many tales of his determination, concern and ungovernable alien ability. He was not a right time, right place kind of man, he was the navigator of time and place and image. His work, never hidden and always exemplified despite the odds of his background as a runaway dropout from a broken family who blagged his first assignment from a white department store matriarch are very small printed footnotes in his larger history.

In 2017, the world is awash in conversation about what images are, whom they represent and what can any longer be controlled in an environment where technology has outpaced our ability to create pathos with our subjects. We are at once fawning and at fear with how our lives are adapted in images from afar and to what purpose they may endure. We have fewer aliens reminding us of the potential of human life. We have too much and we fight too little for the complicit history that an artist like Park’s endured. We have given our creative legacies over to third parties to help fabricate because it is easier. We have lost an ability to communicate images through abstraction and the complicity that our lives are better formed through neo-liberalism and social media outrage. We have forgotten that real struggle takes an indeterminable ability that presides in very few and I am ashamed to say that very few of my generation, and by the looks of it, successive generations will gather together to re-examine these rudiments in the face of oncoming storms.

As I sit and I pore over these five volumes of Park’s works, I am reminded that through suffering, through the constant self-abuse of indecision and the self-rejection that is coupled with political barriers, hatred of otherness and inhumanity, that the pressure did and still can formulate an alien diamond like Gordon Parks. It would be perhaps beneath a man like Parks to read these words of flattery, as they would likely do much to put him at odds with his workload. He does not strike me as a man that was bent on the valorization of others. His internal compass shifted towards a geographic heaven that few would make the time to find on a two-dimensional map. His life was his work and through this work he found others, he informed the world of their lives and did so with unrelenting love and compassion.  It is rare that I get overly excited about works of a concerned or humanistic tradition these days. I tend to nostalgise very little of times that I never lived and yet with Parks I can make this exception and fell, as I did with Roy De Caravara’s “Sweet Flypaper of Life” that not everyone out there is going to act as a small molecular compound bouncing AGAINST its counter-part in an effort to create a combustible energy that seeks to implode or explode depending on the number of other’s in their immediate proximity. But then again aliens do not bounce…they float…

(Left) Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1944

(Center) American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

(Right) Two Members of St. Martin’s Spiritual Church, Washington, D.C., 1942

” Having lost her father to the incipit tentacle of the lynch rope, her agony would also endure the violent murder of her husband and the loss of her own daughter in childbirth to two illegitimate children. The blank stare behind the befuddled head of a mop with nascent potential of life with a back drop of stars and stripes exemplified not only African American struggle, but also the deep and scarring ramifications of their instrumentality in a country built on the blood and sweat of her forefathers and mothers”

Volume 1 1942-1948

The volume begins with a historical account of Park’s early years and formation and most importantly contains small scripts on how Park’s managed against the odds to enter into a career in photography. Henry Gates, Jr. provides the essay Apart from the illuminating prose about Park’s life; it gives a firsthand understanding of Park’s as a man whom the author rightly glorifies in his contextual reasoning but also his own first person experiences with Parks.

The book begins with children. The first image a haunting silhouette of a young African American boy walking out the door of his Washington D.C. home on one leg, the other amputated. Across the street neighbors look at and not away from the process of the image being made and the child leaving his home. The rest of the images of children serve to remind us of the vulnerability of his subjects before the book moves onto his iconic image of the aforementioned Ella Watson, 1942. The sincerity of these works and Parks ability to get his Lilliputian subjects to engage his lens shows an abnormal compassion for inter-generational actors in this theater.

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Moving through Volume One, there is a concentration on people. The portraiture is unconfused for the most part of the environment for which it was taken and the images show again a repoire with subject that can not be taken for granted. The distances close in between the photographer and photographed in Harlem, at Bethune-Cookman College, and other locations across the United States. The works begin to feel similar in range to August Sander’s works of pre-war Germans, but are African Americans instead. I am not suggesting emulation, but rather a correlation that is even more empathetic than the sometimes-cold pathos of Sander’s objective eye. This is about the African American experience. Though not surprising given Parks versatility, his images do not always focus on this socio-economic and racial group- His images of an Interracial Summer Camp being an interesting example followed later in the book by his observations of the natives of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories from 1945.

One thing from Volume One that I did notice and perhaps it is due to the work being made early on when Parks was still building his technique, but also possibly the times themselves or perhaps the way in which he was eliciting response from the white sitters is that there is a distinct lack of eye contact from the white sitters. I am not proposing conjecture here about his ability by any means, but I am proposing that this isn’t something to go with out consideration. It speaks more to me about the people in the photographs and the times they were created than it does about Parks himself and it is not every white person and some African Americans also divert their gaze, but there is a game of ratios to be played when considering the application of sitter to viewer predicated on the possibility of race.

(Left) Homeless Couple, Harlem, New York, 1948

(Right) Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1948

Volume 2 1947-1963

Volume Two of the series presents Parks at his professional complete and still hungry to test out new ways of making images. Another artist flirting with changing the established pattern for which he or she was recognized previously may see as chameleon or out of character these shifts of focus. One fascinating thing about Parks was his ability to converse with any subject with the level turned fully to max. In this volume that is made clear between his Paris Fashion years working for Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel etc., against his perhaps second most famous series illustrating Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Perhaps the time in Paris could be credited with informing parks to the Surrealism that had made the city its steeple in the 20’s and 30’S as the images clearly reflect that tradition.  “Doll Test”, “Harlem Gang Leader”, Ingrid Bergman on Stromboli (not a cooking review, I promise) and “Blind River Uranium” are but a few of the standouts featured in volume two. The control Parks had and his ability to read the terrain of diverse fields of discipline with clarity of his own solidifies itself in this volume. The talent is now intrepid. Deborah Willis adds an excellent historical analysis to the period.

(Top Left) Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

(Top Right ) Watering Hole, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963

(Bottom Left ) Veruschka Models Dress by Pauline Trigère for Vogue, 1965

(Bottom Right) Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., 1963

(Bottom) Untitled, Weirton, West Virginia, 1959

Volume 3 1956-1965

This period could be construed as the most important period for Parks, though his most Iconic images are not necessarily included. He still favors a variety of assignments while also continuing a strong part of his legacy operating in Segregationist America with the use of color film depicting the crucible of the American disparity of race and economy from his viewfinder.

His work has evolved into a full use and exceptionally constructed dialogue with the color format. His fashion tableaux have graduated from classic pillars of beautifully garmented monochrome women to optical puzzles of mosaic color and playfully experimental technique with the dawn of the new decade. He continues his work with African American culture with studies on Black Muslims, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King while also capturing the March on Washington in 1963. His stills from “The Learning Tree” give insight into his cinematic eye, while he does not give up on the monochrome still while working on a tender series of Favela children in Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps one of the more unusual, but incredibly strong photo story movements in this volume is a series of color crime images from 1957, which are alarming for their use of low-lit interiors. They are moody, hard-boiled, and are fabricated in environments that are not the easiest conditions in which to push color film. The work reminds one of what may have happened with Weegee in Chrome. Another excellent essay by Maurice Berger.

(Top Left) Untitled, Muhammad Ali, Miami, Florida, 1966

(Top Right) Chimney Pots, Paris, France, 1964

(Bottom Left) 131 Ellen’s Feet, Harlem, New York, 1968

(Bottom Right) Untitled, Muhammad Ali, Miami, Florida, 1966

Volume 4 1952-1998

This is the volume that acts as an oversight of parts as it spans nearly four and a half decades of incredible professional work. There are still series at play, notably of Black Panthers and Mohammed Ali, but there are also softer detours into color work, which taken out of series stand as reverent if detached totems of Park’s illuminating career. Most importantly though is that this volume contains an essay by parks himself full of brimming poetry and metaphor. It is the volume that sheds light on the mind of the artist. The words become the key feature to this volume. That is not to say the pictures become less. It is simply that if you read the books sequentially, all that came before in the first three volumes tie in heavily to the author in this volume. It works as a survey of sorts.

 ”We have too much and we fight too little for the complicit history that an artist like Park’s endured. We have given our creative legacies over to third parties to help fabricate because it is easier. We have lost an ability to communicate images through abstraction”.

Spreads from Life Magazine

Volume 5 Life Magazine

This volume works as a clever finale to the four previous volumes in that it showcases full spreads of Life magazine in which Park’s work is to be found so that the sequencing and mastery of the image to the page becomes clearer when appraised as the photostory itself. The spreads are photographed as opposed to scanned and cropped to the page, which gives the importance of materiality when viewing the work. It also reminds one of Park’s finding discarded photo magazines on his train journey which he studied from before his career started as outlined by the essay by Henry Gates, Jr. in volume one. It becomes an archival source for many a reader who would otherwise be unable to obtain copies of the original. It feels like a perfect addendum in which the five-volume set should conclude. It allows one to reminisce over the time spent with the preceding volumes.

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There have been a substantial number of books written about Parks, which are not limited to museum catalogues and autobiography. This Study edition in the gravity of its opulent five-volume set is really a keystone in research of parks visual output in photography. There are many more stories to mine and Steidl has also published some such as “Segregation Story” and “Invisible Man” for the exact purpose of consideration for their more powerful singular effect. If you are at all interested in one of the Twentieth Century’s masters of the photographic image, his life, his mark and his contributions to humankind, there would not be much reason to look outside of this set. If you are unaware of the importance and enduring legacy of Park’s work, for the reasonable price, this would be a highly recommended title with which to consider what photography in its ultimate shape can be. It bypasses many of the hallmarks of ego for artistic production, while doing that on its own quietly and without too much a boisterous self-reflecting sound. Its not often that I go backwards looking at works created over the span of the twentieth century, preferring to spend time with contemporary thought and image, but that being said, I have been grossly engaged re-examining the political possibility of a work like this in 2017, while also reminding myself that true alien talent can never be about one single place or person within the larger narrative. I highly recommend that if you are interested in the beast of Twentieth Century photography and Park’s is not on your list, you have missed a large chunk of what LIFE was about.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Gordon Parks: Collected Works Study Edition

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Steidl / The Gordon Parks Foundation. 2017

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