Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 black-and-white and color photographs, generally framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space and the book alcove.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1948/later (lifetime), 1967/later (lifetime), sized 14×11 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1948/c1991, sized roughly 29×20 inches
  • 13 gelatin silver prints, 1948/later (posthumous), 1953/later (posthumous), 1963/later (posthumous), 1967/later (posthumous), sized roughly 14×11, 12×18, 15×22, 20×16 inches, in editions of 15
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1948/later (posthumous), 1963/later (posthumous), sized roughly 20×18, 21×14 inches, in editions of 10
  • 2 chromogenic prints, 1957/later (lifetime), sized 20×16 inches
  • 6 archival pigment prints, 1957/later (posthumous), sized roughly 14×21, 16×20 inches, in editions of 15
  • 1 archival pigment print, 1957/later (posthumous), sized 30×40 inches, in an edition of 7

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The ongoing global pandemic has forced businesses of all kinds to fundamentally reconsider how they operate, and photography galleries are certainly no exception to this rule. For many, the steep decline in foot traffic during the lockdowns exposed the truth that everyone already knew – paying the overhead of a high fixed rent for a large public exhibition space in a major city makes the math of running a sustainable gallery much more difficult. And so, over the past year, we have slowly seen some photo galleries move to smaller spaces (or to lower rent neighborhoods), while a few have even given up their public spaces entirely to become private dealers. Trends in both working and collecting more remotely are enabling gallery owners to actively rethink the traditional requirement for a physical gallery space filled with shows rotating every few months.

Howard Greenberg Gallery’s recent move to a new space seems to fall in line with this larger pattern. While still located in the same classic Midtown building (but now on a different floor), the gallery has moved its massive storage archive of photography offsite (which was never really public-facing anyway), and slimmed down from two linked exhibition spaces to just one. The new gallery space is fresh but intimately modest, just big enough for tightly edited shows, like this straightforward Gordon Parks survey that inaugurates the new location.

Timed to coincide with the recent HBO documentary “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks”, the show pulls a selection of photographs from Parks’s long career, the images connected by the broad idea of his “cinematic approach to photography”. Parks was of course a filmmaker as well as a photographer, and his blaxploitation classic “Shaft” (from 1971) is having its 50th anniversary this year. With that milestone in mind, the show touches various projects, stepping all the way back to the late 1940s and picking out narrative approaches and color aesthetics that feel particularly cinematic. Less a systematic curatorial statement and more a thematic gathering, the choices mostly highlight the consistent ways Parks organized a frame to amplify its dramatic or atmospheric possibilities.

A handful of images from Parks’s 1948 “Harlem Gang Leader” photo essay for LIFE (reviewed more extensively here) set the visual stage, with Parks using close-ups with broken windows, dark backlit silhouettes, and action shots of arms-raised fighting in the streets to memorably create the story around Red Jackson and his gang. Other works in black and white draw from a wider range of subjects, projects, and locations, but the care with which Parks saw faces, framed figures in darkness, drew contrasts between Sunday best clothing and decrepit broken-windowed housing, and arranged wary kids playing in an alley powerfully speak to the broader emotional landscapes and tougher realities he was interested in documenting.

Parks’s turn toward the sweep of the cinema is more pronounced in his color works from the 1950s. A few of the images on view reprise “The Atmosphere of Crime” from 1957 (reviewed here), and lean more forcefully on his sophisticated management of color. Cornflower blue surrounds the silhouette of a police office in the theater district, soft yellow and green provide the backdrop to a hand holding a cigarette through prison bars, and misty orange bathes both a man being searched for drugs and a silhouetted suspect with a gun, and in each case, the color choices amplify and deepen the mood. And a series of four images taken out the front window of a police car in Chicago turn the city lights into a lovely painterly wash, the flares and blurs creating a dissolving backdrop of ever-changing color.

While this sampler show doesn’t introduce many new ideas about Parks and his photography, from picture to picture around the room, it is certainly consistently well-crafted and compositionally compelling. With the unceasingly active support of the Gordon Parks Foundation, Parks’s artistic star continues to rise, and even if small shows like this one only bring his name back to the forefront once again, they are successfully introducing his talents to more and more of those who may have missed (or overlooked) him previously, and solidifying his rightful place in the broader cultural conversation.

Collector’s POV: The lifetime prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $65000 each, largely based on size; the posthumous prints range between $8500 and $26800 each. Parks’s prints have been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $24000.

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