[Earlier this year, I had the chance to visit an amazing photography exhibition at Boston’s Musuem of Fine Arts: Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In this series, I’ll use that exhibition as a starting point for highlighting some of the many ways Parks’s career and life illuminate late 20th century American history and culture. Add your thoughts, whether you’ve seen the exhibition or not, in comments!]
On three reasons why the Parks exhibition (which runs through September!) is a must-see.
1) These photos have been unseen for more than 60 years: I can’t sum up the amazing story of Parks’s photojournalism assignment for Life magazine, a series that the magazine subsequently never aired (for unclear reasons—perhaps because historical events got in the way, perhaps because of racism, perhaps just because of the exigencies of publishing), better than this New York Times story on the exhibition. So I’ll just add that the chance to see amazing unreleased photos from one of our most talented and significant photographers, more than six decades after they were taken, is an opportunity no AmericanStudier should pass up.
2) The photos reflect our history in subtle but vital ways: When Parks returned in 1950 to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, to try to catch up with and photograph a group of his high school classmates, the town remained as segregated as it had been in his 1910s and 20s childhood. Other than one picture of a young African American couple standing outside the town’s segregated movie theater (the second picture in the preview slideshow at the exhibition’s website), Parks’s photos don’t overtly portray that Jim Crow world. But on the other hand, of course they do—these individuals and families, lives and communities, were all part of that world, affected by and engaging with it on so many levels, and the photos provide a glimpse into that world far beyond the perhaps more familiar headlines and images.
3) The photos capture humanity: As a photographer primarily interested in human subjects, Parks (on whose life and career more in tomorrow’s post) was obviously very talented at portraits—not only at the literal art of taking people’s pictures, but at the more complex and compelling skill of capturing their identities and worlds through such portraits. And in the Fort Scott series, that skill served him very well for two distinct but related reasons. For one thing, segregation and racism depend on seeing people as types and stereotypes, not three-dimensional human beings; even in two-dimensional photos, Parks consistently pierced that prejudicial perspective. And for another thing, our 21st century narratives of histories like Jim Crow still too often portray people as simply small dots within the big picture; but the people in Parks’s photos are life-size, and give us amazingly powerful glimpses into those lives as a result.
If you’re in the Boston area, get to the exhibition ASAP! If you’re not, feel free to come visit me and we’ll go together! Next Parks connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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