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Gordon Parks exhibition captures Black America

Heike Mund ss
September 22, 2017

Photographer Gordon Parks captured some of the most pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement while exposing the realities of oppression and poverty. A show in Frankfurt shows some of his most celebrated works.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Gordon Parks's "Department Store" captured segregation in Alabama in 1956Image: Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks is unfortunately one of the lesser known names of American photography. His pictures aren't usually featured in books on photography, yet his work documented some of the most defining moments of the 20th century, especially in the US.

Parks' pictures are full of iconic images representing the struggles of African-Americans under segregation. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation has sponsored a traveling exhibition dedicated to highlighting Parks' work in 2016 and 2017. The show culminates in the foundation's current home at "The Cube" – in the heart of Germany's financial capital, Frankfurt.

Surviving under racial segregation

Gordon Parks was born into poverty as the youngest of 15 children in 1912. His father barely managed to feed the family; his mother died when he was 15 years old. She left him with this piece of advice after which Parks went on to model his life: "If a white boy can do it, then you can do it too. And do it better, or don't come home."

Parks also struggled to make a living as a young adult like his parents did before him. He had to work several jobs but barely scraped by: playing piano at a brothel, taking on menial tasks at drugstores, or working as a train conductor. In 1938, he noticed a camera at a pawn shop, which he purchased with what little money he had – not realizing at the time that this would change his life forever.

Parks taught himself how to use the camera, making additional income as a freelance photographer for newspapers and magazines. It was the beginning of a promising new career. 

Anne-Marie Breckmann, curator of the Gordon Parks exhibition and director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation says it was remarkable how he managed to learn so much about "such powerful visual language as a self-taught photographer."

Red more:Defining Black art in the age of Black Power

Documenting the Civil Rights Movement

From small publications to national magazines such as "Harper's Bazaar" and "Vogue," Gordon Parks soon embarked on a stellar career that allowed him to escape poverty. His images, which often looked more like film stills than portraits, resonated with editors.

But he continued to be denied professional recognition on account of his race. In response, Parks began to document the reality of the daily oppression that African-Americans faced while the Civil Rights Movement was also on the rise. His first reportage on crime gangs in Harlem, New York led to a staff position as a photo journalist at "Life" Magazine.

Parks went on to capture key moments of American history, particularly the circumstances surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. With current affairs in the US repeatedly highlighting race relations in the US, even in this age, his photographs look as important today as they did more than 50 years ago.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Washington D.C., 1963
Gordon Parks captured the defining civil rights protests of his era, this image part of his "The March on Washington" series Image: Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

A man of many trades

Later in life, Parks turned his attention to Hollywood, writing film scores and scripts and directing movies. His film "Shaft" (1971) is considered to be one of the most outstanding pieces of black cinema, and was a game-changer for Hollywood, which in the early 1970s was still reluctant to feature African-American actors in major movies. In 1973, Parks was recognized for his work when he was initiated into the "Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame."

Despite being a self-taught photographer without any academic training, Parks received more than 40 honorary doctorates in his lifetime. He died in 2006, aged 93. Until his dying days, he continued to work as a photographer.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation exhibition "Gordon Parks. I am You. Selected Works 1942-1978" opens at "The Cube" on 22 September 2017 and continues until 5 January 2017. The show is part of a cooperation between c/o Berlin and the Gordon Parks Foundation in New York.