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Gordon Parks: –A Harlem Family 1967


The current exhibition at the Studio Museum in New York is A Harlem Family by Gordon Parks. This series was originally published in Life in 1968, accompanied by the photographer’s raw commentary, inciting a national outcry at the disturbing social conditions it depicts. His essay concludes with a few troubling words, where Parks uses the literal and metaphorical harshness of winter to reflect pessimistically on the struggles of the poor.

That same year, the museum opened a few blocks away from the Fontenelle family home, where Parks lived for a month with eight children, warring parents, a dog and two cats, all crammed into a crumbling apartment on 127th street. The story is hard to follow, and sometimes words are necessary to grasp it. Parks speaks with an incisive and vibrant tone which complements the sincerity of his photographs.

The catalog, co-published by Steidl, reproduces in full the original report as it appeared in Life. The magazine’s cover bears headlines tinged with the racial segregation of 1960s America. The publishers emphasize the importance of the article’s text. We witness the bleakness of the human condition: the modesty of their hopes, that they should consider themselves lucky if even one of their children succeeds; the built-up hatred that pushes the wife to toss scalding sugar water on her husband’s face (the sticky sugar would make the injuries worse). Parks reveals the family’s full range of emotions, and their struggle to keep faith while enduring such a life.

One regrettable aspect of the exhibition is that the texts are virtually absent, the captions reduced to a minimum, while the dark walls of the room tend to smother the pictures. The elegantly humane photographs, some previously unreleased, are a monument in the history of documentary photography, and it is a special pleasure to see them on view at home in Harlem.

Laurence Cornet

Gordon Parks. A Harlem Family 1967
Until June 30th, 2013
The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street

New York 10027

Book by Steidl (January 15th, 2013)
112 pages, 100 tritone plates
ISBN: 978-3869306025
US $38.00
EC €28.00

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