The Man Who Fought Prejudice with Photography

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Untitled, Watts, California, 1967© Photography by Gordon Parks. Courtesy and copyright the Gordon Parks Foundation

As a new exhibition of his pioneering work opens at Foam, we look back on the remarkable legacy of image-maker and activist Gordon Parks

Who? American photographer Gordon Parks was one of the most influential visual documenters of race relations, poverty and urban life during the 20th century. Over the course of his 60-year career he brought these issues to the attention of a huge audience – he was the first African American photographer to work for Life magazine – proving a vital champion of the civil rights movement. Parks was born in Kansas in 1912. He was one of 15 children and his childhood was spent battling the hardships of poverty, segregation and discrimination. At the age of 25, while flicking through a magazine, he stumbled across a photo story on migrant workers. This sparked a burgeoning interest in photography and shortly afterwards Parks purchased a camera from a local pawnshop for “around seven dollars and 50 cents”, as he later recalled, and began teaching himself the basics of the medium. From the start, his talents were blindingly obvious, his style defined by a knack for empathetic storytelling and a discerning eye for composition.

He soon secured some small fashion commissions and by 1942 had caught the attention of the Farm Security Administration (FAS), a government programme dedicated to combating poverty in rural America, who awarded him a fellowship for his evocative images of inner-city life. His accomplished and deeply expressive explorations of the social and economic impacts of racism for FAS garnered much attention; one famous 1948 report on a gang leader in Harlem securing him his position with Life, the most renowned photojournalism publication of the time, where he worked for the next two decades. For the rest of his career, Parks remained a tireless documentarian as well as a passionate activist, offsetting his politically inclined work with portraiture of icons such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King and fashion shoots for publications including American Vogue. He also became a pioneer of Blaxpoitation cinema after directing the 1971 classic Shaft, featuring the first black superhero.

What? Now, a new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Foam photography museum offers the chance to view many of Parks’ most important and captivating works under one roof. These include a number of his lesser-known colour photographs – notably his vivid shot of a immaculately dressed mother and daughter standing beneath a neon sign pointing towards the designated “colored entrance”. Other poignant depictions of the African American plight include an untitled 1964 image in which a forlorn protester clasps a sign that reads, “We are living in a police state”, a statement reaffirmed by a striking photograph of Malcolm X holding up a newspaper bearing the headline, “Seven unarmed negroes shot in cold blood by Los Angeles police”.

Meanwhile, one of Parks’ most iconic Life covers, for a story dubbed ‘The Negro and the City’, shows a small boy, mouth open wide emitting a cry you can almost hear, tears streaming down his cheeks. Parks described his camera as his “weapon of choice”, and no wonder: his pictures don’t simply invite a response, they demand one – but not always in such a bleak manner. His marvellously atmospheric shot taken at a civil rights rally in Watts, California in 1967, for example, focuses in on a man and woman in matching Malcolm X sweaters, the former relaxed and smiling, the latter shouting a spirited chant. A vibrant depiction of camaraderie and passion in the face of adversity, this image embodies Parks’ firm belief that “the camera is not meant just to show misery.”

Why? At a time when America was defined by a sense of unrest and social division, Parks resolved to use photography to help unite and incite change. His images resonate with a tangible sense of humanity that transcends boundaries of race and class. So much so that he managed to overcome the prejudices that existed in the realms of professional photography, paving the way for marginalised imagemakers of the future. “At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent,” he reflected shortly before his death at the age of 93, “but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it.”

Gordon Parks – I Am You is at Foam from June 16 until September 6, 2017.