Weapon of Choice
written by Andreas Hübner
“Nothing came easy,” Gordon Parks, remarked in his 1990 autobiography, Voice in the Mirror, looking back a long and winding road that had turned the High School drop-out at age fifteen into an accomplished photographer, writer, and film director by the 1970s. Never one to disappoint, Parks had cleared the ranks, playing the piano in brothels, trying on a semi-professional sports career with the touring “House of David” basketball team, cleaning up after alcoholics in a flophouse: “I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness.”
That restlessness was to be condensed in the mid-1930s when Parks discovered the power of the camera. Taking a railroad job, he started reading the magazines discarded on the trains and incidentally ran into a remarkable group of photographers: Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. Pushed into a new perspective on visual practice, Parks began visiting the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue during layovers in Chicago, gently wandering about the paintings of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Edouard Manet, only to frequent the boisterous movie houses afterwards. Here the newsreel caught his attention, and, inspired by the bravery and dedication of the cameramen, he became determined to take upon photography. Not before long, Parks left a pawnshop. For $12.50, he had purchased his weapon of choice: a Voightlander Brilliant.
" Encompassing the period in between 1942 and 1978, the curators have decided to not just concentrate on the photographic oeuvre of Parks, they also consider his expertise as a writer and filmmaker "
Opening on September 9, C/O Berlin is presenting the exhibition I Am You at Amerika Haus Berlin, highlighting the works of Gordon Parks. Staged in cooperation with The Gordon Parks Foundation, the exhibition will be on display until December 15, 2016, and then travel to FOAM in Amsterdam and the Kunstfoyer in Munich. Encompassing the period in between 1942 and 1978, the curators have decided to not just concentrate on the photographic oeuvre of Parks, they also consider his expertise as a writer and filmmaker. Altogether some 150 works are shown, vintage prints, contact sheets, magazines, and films. Parks is represented as both a protagonist of the Civil Rights Movement and a respected chronicler of celebrated figures. Profiling agents of change such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, as well as popular darlings such as Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergmann und Alberto Giacometti, his photographic endeavors would eventually bring together the worlds of politics, art and fashion.
Born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, a remote Kansas prairie town, African American Gordon Parks was not meant to become one of his country’s favorites. Amid poverty and racial segregation, he was distressed by the early death of his mother. The then fourteen year old mourned her sudden passing and, at the same time, feared his very own end. Slowly that restlessness would kick in. Sent away to live with relatives, he learnt to rely on himself, taking on odd jobs, eventually picking up photography. In the 1930s, with the camera at his hands, Parks made his ways into Chicago’s sprawling impoverished South Side. He sensed that even though a cheap apparatus, the Voightlander would empower him to make serious comments on the human condition. A new way of seeing and feeling opened up to him, one acknowledged by the Julius Rosenwald Fund: By 1941, Parks was awarded a fellowship and to serve a term with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. He moved to the capital in January 1942, only to recognize that “racism was busy with its dirty work” in the city. Parks began to portray the bigotry of the American Way of Life and a society deeply entrenched in racism, segregation, injustice, violence, and poverty.
" Sent away to live with relatives, he learnt to rely on himself, taking on odd jobs, eventually picking up photography "
I Am You includes perhaps Parks’ most famous image of the DC days: The “American Gothic, Washington D.C.” (1942). Shot during the year of the Rosenwald fellowship, it poses a strong juxtaposition to Grant Wood’s painting of the same title. Moving the scene from rural Iowa to the capital, the photograph features a single African American cleaning woman, Ella Watson, positioned in front of the star-spangled banner with a broom and a mop. “American Gothic” challenges racism head-on and unfolds Parks’ profound approach to photography. Self-taught, he did not just develop a unique style and versatility that transcended professional stereotypes, he also added to the conceptual transformation of photography. Parks developed the concept of image sequence, displaying human behavior or societal conditions as recurring processes. Hence, through photography, he explored innovative ways of narrative structure, placing him among the pioneers of the social documentary tradition.
After leaving the Farm Security Administration, Parks continued to portray people from all walks of life. In 1948, a photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader, Red Jackson, earned Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. The watershed had come, engagements with Condé Nast, Vogue, and other renowned fashion magazines were to follow. But Parks never got off focus; he managed to explore the spheres of art and fashion without becoming limited to glamour photography. A photojournalist by heart, he was able to produce that rare intimacy between photographer and subject and to transcend sheer voyeurism, creating moments of subtle mastery. In this sense, Park’s photographs of Ingrid Bergman represent his most iconic images. Exhibited at C/O Berlin, these photographs reveal Bergman’s vulnerability and, at once, resemble Parks’ take on the profession of the photographer: “I wound up being an objective reporter with a subjective heart.”
All the while, Parks rose to become an acclaimed filmmaker and writer. In the 1970s, he directed two Shaft movies, Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score, thereby introducing the Blaxpoitation genre to movie houses, confronting the audience with America’s poor urban neighborhoods. Parks later described the movies as noisy, but necessary films: “People come up and ask me if we really need this image of Shaft the black superman. Hell, yes, there’s a place for John Shaft.” Even earlier, Parks had become Hollywood’s first African American to direct a major film, when he had taken over the production of The Learning Tree, a drama adaptation of his 1964 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. For the shooting of the film, he returned to his hometown Fort Scott after more than two decades. The atmosphere was tense, as essayist S. Pearl Sharp noted, for Fort Scott wasn’t too sure it wanted Parks and those Hollywood folks filming, putting a spotlight on their souls, telling a story about race and righteousness. Yet, Parks was not willing to let the opportunity slip away, he was willing to take upon the chance and to shed light on America’s troubled past and presence. He was to act as the American Renaissance man that we now experience at C/O Berlin and that still speaks to us today: “One hundred miles from Kansas City, Missouri, as the crow flies southward is my birthplace, Fort Scott Kansas. I went back this spring for the first time in twenty-three years. I rode into town on the tail of hard blowing storm; it was high noon but Main Street was dark as night.”