Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole
This show, featuring the influential work of American photographer, film director, composer, and writer Gordon Parks, spans the gallery’s two locations on 20th and 24th street and highlights—in both intimate and exquisite form—the realities of the Black experience in America during the mid-to-late 20th century.
On 20th Street, images are featured from Park’s series Invisible Man and Segregation Story. Referencing the watershed book of the same name by Ralph Elison, Invisible man captures characters and individuals out in the streets of Harlem, where Parks himself lived. One figure peers out of a manhole in the street, while others are documented out living daily life; preserving the atmospheric and individual makeup of this historic community in the early 1950s. Another image of a man surrounded by hundreds of light bulbs mirrors the unnamed narrator of Elison’s novel who —from his hidden basement apartment in an all-white building— speaks: “I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine”. In the original story, the narrator similarly hangs 1369 light bulbs in his tiny room.
Images from the Segregation Story reveal the commonplace reality of segregation in mid-1950s Alabama, contrasting pubic racism with the normalcy of an extended family’s experience of everyday life. Originally commissioned as a photo essay for Life magazine, Park’s images exposed Americans to the effects of racial segregation at moment not too long after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Members of the family are seen working, at home, at leisure, or out in the town; with the eerie reminder of our nation’s not-to-distant upholding of Jim Crow laws emblematically displayed in neon, commercial, and private signage.
Parks was also aware that no group of people, no culture, was simply the sum of its worst tragedies. Always, there is a glimpse of the joy that perseveres even in the most hostile circumstances, the glint of light peering through foreboding clouds. The snatched-from-the-headlines quality of these images attest to the fact that our conflicts have not changed, but neither has the willingness to confront them. There is nothing in Parks’s body of work that includes the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” but it didn’t need to. He’d already shown that they do, minute after minute, across the void from his time to our own.—Jelani Cobb
On 24th Street, Parks’ documentation of protests and leaders of social justice include Malcolm X, Eldridge/Kathleen Cleaver, Muhammad Ali, and the photographer Ella Watson. Watson—who worked as a cleaner for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) headquarters—gave Parks his break into the predominantly racist landscape of 1940s D.C., where he was turned away from restaurants, kicked out of theaters, and denied service at a department store where he tried to buy himself a winter coat. Other photographs at this location are from the period when Parks was also shooting for Life magazine. In one, a regal Malcolm X is captured at a rally just a few years before his assassination. Other images feature peaceful protesters gathered behind barricades or huddled in the streets. Parks’ photographs remain some of the most iconic of the civil rights period.
As a piece of history, the show is a must-see—for remembering what the reality for Blacks in America looked like—not very long ago. As a work of art, the show is a must-see for remembering how much this experience has —and has not— changed in the present.
January 7 – February 20, 2021