The Mid-Century Fashion Photographer Who Broke the American Colour Line

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Untitled, Coney Island, New York, 1950Photography by Gordon Parks, Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Looking back at the early work of Gordon Parks, the first African-American photographer at LIFE magazine

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a singular figure in every sense of the word, transcending every boundary foisted upon him as a black man coming of age in Jim Crow America. Now, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950, a new exhibition in Washington, looks back at the groundbreaking first decade of his career, during which he rose to become the first African-American photographer at LIFE magazine.

Hailing from Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks decided to become a photographer while working as a waiter in a railroad dining car and looking through discarded copies of magazines like Vogue and Look. At the age of 25, Parks purchased a Voigtländer Brilliant, which he later called his “choice of weapon”, and taught himself to become a professional portrait photographer and photojournalist.

“Having a camera gave him access to tell different stories,” says Dr Deborah Willis, who wrote an essay titled ‘Gordon Parks: Haute Couture and the Everyday’ for the exhibition catalogue published by Steidl.

“We have to keep in mind that at the time, black people didn’t have that sense of freedom to walk into spaces and expect the respect that he received. That’s what I find fascinating about Gordon: the boundaries weren’t there for him. He understood that he had an eye. He believed in his sense of understanding of the depths and complexities of life that he wanted to pursue work and develop the work.”

With this inner faith, Parks set forth, launching his career when he walked into a local department store in St Paul, Minnesota, where he was living in 1939. Parks told the owner, Frank Murphy: “I’d like to shoot fashions for you, sir.” His inquiry was declined until Murphy’s wife, Madeleine, made her support known.

It was here that Parks honed his talent for fashion photography, combining his finely crafted observations of its masters with an intuitive understanding of the viewer’s mind. “By looking at the images in LIFE and Look magazines, Gordon starting to think about how we create a narrative about the fabric of life,” Dr Willis says.

“I believe that he looked at those images and began to place stories in his own imagination about the condition of women and others. He had this sense of inside/outside flexibility. He could also see inequality and find a way to equalise it in a sense. Through fashion, that happened.”

The genesis of this perspective began with an old photograph dated circa 1890, in which his mother Sarah Ross Parks stands tall in her finest gown. Parks, who was the youngest of 15 children, was only 14 when his mother died. “I imagine Gordon understood his mother through the lens of that image, his mother outside of raising children,” Dr Willis observes.

“I see this image as pivotal of what it meant to have a portrait made at that time. It allowed Sarah Ross Parks to create the personality and character of a woman who, within a 30-year period after Emancipation, and how she is using this space as a place to acknowledge not only her femininity and her sense of self as a free woman.”

The spirit of self-determination, pride, and personal agency passed from mother to son, and Parks would pay it forward in his work. “Gordon was placing these women in this clothing in these high powered places like New York or Chicago – and seeing these spaces, they had a right to dress and be in these environments.”

Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950 is on at National Gallery of Art, Washington until February 18, 2019.