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The Making of Gordon Parks

How did Gordon Parks become so versatile? The photographer, poet, novelist and filmmaker is usually described as a “genius,” but that term often connotes natural-born talents, and glosses over the hard work, study and experimentation that honed the artist’s craft. A new exhibition and a companion catalogue, published by Steidl, looks at ten formative years in Parks’s career that laid the foundation for his creative output in social documentary, fashion photography, fiction and memoir. Fittingly, “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950” is on display at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, the city where Parks created one of his 
most iconic images of the 1940s.

By the time he made the earliest images in the exhibition, Parks had already taught himself to make photos using a camera he had bought at a pawnshop, and was supporting himself shooting portraits and photojournalism in St. Louis and Chicago. In 1942, he went to Washington on a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supported research on the South (writer Zora Neale Hurston had been a Rosenwald Fellow). He applied to spend his year as a fellow working at the Farm Security Administration with Roy Stryker. Stryker sent Parks to study the work of FSA photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein. In Washington, Parks found the “discrimination and bigotry were worse there than any place I had yet seen,” he later reported. He decided to document the impact of the city’s Jim Crow laws, and soon met a washerwoman named Ella Watson. In the course of documenting her routine, Parks made his famous portrait of Watson staring straight at the camera, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other and an American flag behind her.

After the FSA closed in 1943, Parks became a freelancer in New York. He developed a network of fellow artists working in other media, including writers Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He became the first black photographer to shoot for Vogue, and also shot fashion assignments for its sister publication, Glamour. In 1948 he published his first major assignment in LIFE, “Harlem Gang Leader,” about 17-year-old Red Jackson. Disappointed in LIFE’s sensationalized edit of the story, Parks insisted on writing his own captions for the many in-depth photo essays he pursued afterwards.

The exhibition, which features rare magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and books as well as 150 photos, was produced in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation, which holds the artist’s archive. Executive director Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., says the exhibition materials illuminate how this crucial decade helped Parks form “a fuller, more poignant understanding of humanity.”

—Holly Stuart Hughes

“Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950”
Through February 18, 2019
National Gallery of Art 

The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950
Steidl

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Documentary/Photojournalism

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