Gordon Parks, I Am You
Jeweled Cap, Malibu, California, 1958 © and courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation.
Though Gordon Parks is best perhaps best known as the filmmaker behind the iconic blaxploitation movie Shaft it is his photographic documentation of much of the Civil Rights era that pays the greatest testament to his legacy as an artist. Parks also spent many years as a freelance photographer for a variety of publications, working across many subjects whilst also exhibiting considerable skill as a pianist, composer, essayist and memoirist. A new exhibition looks at some of his lesser-know fashion photography that exhibits his signature aesthetic while cementing his significance as a pioneering polymath of the African-American artistic community.
A current exhibition at Jack Shaiman in New York, I Am You includes examples from Parks’ fashion works taken during the 1950s and 60s in New York. He showcased a signature aesthetic, which photography historian and Gordon Parks Foundation board member Deborah Willis calls street style. “He situated models in haute couture dresses and stylized suits within the lively city. Readers could imagine themselves in the clothing, either waiting for a bus on Fifth Avenue or experiencing a flat tire on the way to a ball.” She adds, “Gordon understood the importance of beauty in everyday life. He recognized desire and found a way to express it in many forms.”
“My work in Vogue,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, A Hungry Heart, “brought me into contact with the industry’s most dazzling models. But coping with their moods and whims wasn’t easy. The finest ones demanded big money, and some arrived weighted with troubles. Soured love affairs and monthly female problems prevailed. At times the first hour was given to tales of woe. But ignoring those problems amounted to tossing big money into the rubbish.”
Among his lesser-known works featured in the exhibition are a series of portraits of artists in their studios, including Helen Frankenthaler, Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. A 1951 group of images taken in Giacometti’s studio transforms the artist into one of his creations – skeletal and draped in shadow, yet still dominating the composition, even from the background.
As a photographer for Life Magazine during the publication’s most influential years, Parks had a wide audience for his celebrity portraits and photo essays. His work documented everyday life across the country, when photographs were not only taken at face value but could turn the tide of public opinion. Parks’ images have been woven into the fabric of our nation’s collective visual memories and continue to be relevant today. American rap musician Kendrick Lamar recreated several classic Parks photographs in the 2017 music video for his song “ELEMENT,” emulating not only the artist’s signature aesthetic style but his critique of injustice and call for activism.
Parks was born in Kansas in 1912. He was self-taught and first worked for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the nation’s social conditions. In the 1940s he was a freelance photographer for publications like Ebony and Vogue and in 1948, he became the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life magazine, the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world at that time. He spent twenty years with the publication, chronicling racism and poverty, and captured moments with leaders such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that would go on to become iconic.
He was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African-American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the aforementioned Shaft. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and continued working until his death in 2006, leaving behind The Gordon Parks Foundation to continue his influential legacy.
Shainman’s exhibition takes its title from the text the artist penned to accompany a 1967 project on the Fontenelles, a poverty-struck Harlem family Parks photographed as a way of highlighting systemic neglect that was contributing to race riots in cities across America. In his essay, he wrote: “What I want. What I Am. What you force me to be is what you are. For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself.”