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Gordon Parks: Collected Works Study Edition


Five volumes make up this hugely impressive Collected Works edition published by Steidl and it takes that many to do justice to and celebrate Gordon Park’s unique life in photography.

The first volume covers the years from 1942, when Parks first acquired a camera, to 1948 when he was hired by Life magazine as a staff photographer, making him the first African-American photographer to work for a mainstream American periodical.

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, a part of Jim Crow America that Parks called “the Mecca of bigotry”, a series of lucky breaks allowed him to start making a living with a camera. His early photographs in Volume 1 are the result of working for the Farm Security Administration (the same government body that employed Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange) and include the now famous shot of an African-American cleaning woman with mop and broom standing before the American flag. The father of the cleaner – her name is Ella Watson – had been lynched by a white mob, Ella herself was widowed and one of her two daughters had died. Her steadfast stance in front of the flag – the image deliberately evokes Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic – is just one of the piercing images resulting from Parks’ commitment to recording working-class life, from New York to rural Pennsylvania.

Once established at Life (Volume Two covers these early years, 1947-63), Parks was able to balance mainstream assignments for the prestigious magazine with projects fuelled by his black consciousness. Only a non-white photographer could have gained the trust of Harlem gangs when he persuaded Life to run a piece on the street wars that were raging in that neighbourhood in the late 1940s. Some of his Weegee-style photographs are raw and shocking while in others he transcends this kind of tabloid photojournalism and captures sombre moments of reflection and the grim social reality facing young black men in their economically deprived environment.

Alongside work on subjects dear to his heart, Parks could also be found on Stromboli, a small island off the north coast of Sicily, meeting up with the film director Roberto Rosselini and the film star Ingrid Bergman. The couple, who were there filming as well as engaged in a relationship that would soon become a scandal, had invited Parks as someone they felt would not exploit the privacy they needed.

For two years, 1950 and 1951, Parks was the photographer for Life’s Paris Bureau and he dutifully turned up for fashion shoots and produced the conventional type of images that were required. Back in America, he travelled to Chicago for an article on Baptist churches and spent days with members of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church at prayer, members of a congregation who found relief in their religion from the subjugation many of them suffered in their jobs. In 1955, for the magazine’s special double issue on Christianity, Parks revisited his native Kansas to report on a Benedictine monastery.

Parks was at his best when working on picture stories that told a tale – of crime, poverty, segregation, celebrities – and Volume 3 (1956-65) covers a number of his photographic essays for Life, his editors leaving him to develop his own methods of working. Just as he gained editors’ trust, so too he was able to connect with individuals in whatever story he was picturing; a Parks photo without a human figure is a rarity. Following the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Parks travelled to Alabama to document the racial tensions and he became friends with the Causey family. When the story of their life as second-class citizens appeared in the magazine, the family suffered persecution and were chased out of their home. Parks made sure they were compensated and given the necessary support to get back on their feet.

Gordon Parks was photographing in colour from the mid-1950s but remained with black and white film for his stunning portraits of Muhammad Ali between 1966 and 1970, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. These are in Volume 4 (1952-980) along with examples of his experimentation with the aesthetic possibilities of colour. These pre-William Eggleston photographs developed into an awareness by Parks of how colour could render moods and states of mind in ways that approached abstraction.

The final volume of this Study Edition is devoted to Life magazine and the photojournalism that sustained Parks until he left the magazine in 1970. By powerfully arranging text and camera imagery, journalistic stories were brought to life in a way never seen before and the work allowed Parks to travel the world, not just widening his horizons as much as those of the magazine’s many millions of readers but facilitating his gradual mastery of the grammar of photography. Parks, such was the influence his success earned him, often wrote the reportage that accompanied his picture stories; an unusual achievement at the time for any staff photographer.

The revelatory Volume 5 reproduces a number of his photo essays as they originally appeared, reduced from the actual 35-by-53-centimetre size of the magazine when spread opened but otherwise complete. What you see, interspersed with Parks’ photographs and text, are glossy displays of washing machines, clock radios, the Gillette Techmatic Razor, Kodak film and the like. Advertising, designed to capture the spending power of middle-class consumers, was Life’s raison d’être and it comes as a shock to see how the layout of articles was governed less by a desire to display the quality of the photographs and more by a canny and commercially-driven talent to satisfy advertisers.

Life readers, reasonably affluent and moderately well educated, enjoyed comfortable middle-class lifestyles and a part of this enjoyment was the wish to feel cosmopolitan and well-informed. The magazine sought to fulfil this wish by pleasing them with articles that confirmed their aspirational self-image and if this meant subjecting complex photo essays to cropping and trimming and the insertion of bland advertisements then so be it.

Exhaustive and beautiful, the Gordon Parks: Collected Works Study Edition should go a long way in bringing Parks’ achievement to a wider audience and, for those already acquainted with his work, provide a better opportunity than ever before for appreciating and celebrating his accomplishment as a great photographer.


Sean Sheehan
Sean Sheehan is a writer specializing in photography.


Gordon Parks: Collected Works Study Edition
Published by Steidl

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