Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 57 black-and-white and color photographs, alternately framed in white/black and matted/unmatted, and hung against white walls in the front and back galleries at the 24th Street gallery space and in the divided main gallery space, the smaller front room, and the entry area of the 20th Street gallery space.

The following works have been included in each location:

24th Street gallery space

  • 9 gelatin silver prints,  1946/later, 1963/later, sized 20×24 (in editions of 7+2P, 10+2AP), 30×24 (in editions of 7+2AP), 30×40 inches (in editions of 7+2AP)
  • 8 gelatin silver prints (lifetime), 1942, 1952, 1953, 1963, 1966, sized 11×14, 20×16 inches
  • 14 archival pigment prints, 1957/later, 1963/later, sized 16×20 (in editions of 15+3AP), 20×24 (in editions of 10+2AP), 24×30 (in editions of 10+2AP), 30×40 inches (in editions of 7+2AP)

20th Street gallery space

  • 22 archival pigment prints, 1956, 1957, 1963, sized 20×16 (in editions of 15+3AP), 24×20 (in editions of 10+2AP, 7+2AP), 24×30 (in editions of 7+2AP), 28×28 (in editions of 10+2AP), 34×34 (in editions of 7+2AP), 34×30 (in editions of 7+2AP), 30×40 (in editions of 7+2AP), 42×42 (in editions of 7+2AP), 46×46 (in editions of 7+2AP), 50×50 inches (in editions of 7+2AP)
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1947, 1948, 1952, 1953, sized 42×42 inches (in editions of 7+2AP)

Most of the prints were made posthumously by the artist’s estate; they can most easily be identified by black borders around the images.

(Installation shots for both locations below.)

Comments/Context: As the surge in interest in Black artists of all kinds continues to percolate through the art world, it makes complete sense that the stature of Gordon Parks continues to rise. Even before the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year amplified the attention on Black artists, Parks’s photographic legacy was being systematically clarified and promoted. Led by an active and engaged Gordon Parks Foundation team, a steady stream of museum exhibits, gallery shows, and photobooks have been developed with regularity over the past decade, offering both broad surveys of his work and scholarly deep dives into lesser known projects. Most recently, Jack Shainman Gallery hosted a two-part retrospective summary (reviewed here and here) in 2018, highlighting the breadth of Parks’s talents, Steidl published a well-received photobook of Parks’s 1950s police photography (The Atmosphere of Crime, reviewed here), and MoMA featured this same body of work in its recent rehanging of its permanent collection (reviewed here). It’s been a well-deserved run for one of the increasingly critical figures in the history of American photography.

This show essentially doubles down on that momentum and tries to more explicitly connect Parks to our current moment, crafting a two-venue exhibit that features a selection of Parks’s images of racial justice protests and demonstrations and also reprises some of his best known bodies of work. The photographs on view at the 24th Street space most directly address the ongoing fight for social justice, offering plenty of echoes between past and present. One group of pictures documents a rally against police brutality in Harlem in 1963, triggered by a police shooting in Los Angeles that left seven dead. The signs and newspaper headlines captured in the photographs feel eerily familiar when placed in the context of George Floyd’s death last year. Serious-faced protestors carry signs saying “We Are Living in a Police State”, “Liberty or Death”, and “Police Brutality Must Go”, the images reminding us that we have very much been here before. Parks’s color pictures made at a larger rally have a more uplifting, joyous tone, with hands raised into the air in unison and voices raised in communal support. Other photographs locate Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other pastors and spirited orators in these protests, allowing us to look back and forth between speakers and attentive audiences. But Parks’s poignant 1963 image of a hand holding a Bible cradling a red rose reminds us that death (and funerals) are too often the flashpoint for change.

In the 20th Street gallery space, Parks’s Segregation Story gets another look, getting beyond the half a dozen most famous images from the 1956 LIFE assignment and digging deeper into some of the lesser known pictures. Picking up where a 2015 gallery show at Salon 94 Freemans left off (reviewed here), the installation here starts with the powerhouses –  the kids looking through the chain link fence, the boys with a toy gun, the girl sitting in a chair, and the mother and daughter underneath the neon Colored Entrance sign. An alternate view of a young Black girl looking at white mannequins in a store window reverses the perspective of the more famous version, so we now watch over her shoulder instead of looking through the display; while the vantage point is different, the reality of the racial separation is still very apparent. Other notable images watch as boys go fishing, girls read on the front porch, and an old man rocks in his chair as his wife tenderly holds the back. One picture of two girls in dresses playing with teacups is a particular knockout, as their prim demeanor isn’t diminished at all by the fact that they are playing in brown dirty flood water up to their ankles. Another memorable but less familiar image captures two women talking across a long front yard fence where baby onesies in all colors have been hung out to dry. Again and again, Parks sees powerful humanity shining through the stereotypes and prejudices of poverty and race.

In another grouping, Parks’s 1963 photographs from Fort Scott, Kansas, sparkle with the easy going joy of childhood, reminding us by reversal just how rare it has been to see Black kids in this way. Boys paddle in the water and lie in the long grass, kicking back with a crossed leg and daydreaming with a junebug on a string crawling on a forehead. In recent days, photographers like Tyler Mitchell (reviewed here) have taken up the challenge of reimagining stress-free, safe childhoods for Black kids, and these pictures by Parks definitely lay the aesthetic groundwork for such thinking.

Sprinkled in among these various bodies of work are some of Parks’s most renowned photographs, including his indelible portrait of Ella Watson with her mop and broom in front of the American flag, his recreations of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man peeking out from underneath a manhole cover and hanging out in his underground retreat, and the black child faced with the test of choosing between white and black baby dolls. These photographs fill in the gaps in the broader sweep of the Parks artistic arc, and remind us of just how adept Parks was at telling a searingly powerful story in a single frame.

This show succeeds because it functions effectively for all kinds of visitors – for those who are just getting to know Parks, it hits some of his main highlights and creates a general framework for understanding his career; and for those who have already internalized how important and influential Parks was, there are some lesser known gems and secondary images on view that reward further looking. And for everyone, there is the renewed resonance to be found between Parks’s pictures of police brutality protests and those of our own times. While the predominance of posthumous prints remains a quiet point of discomfort, there is certainly no argument with Parks’s talents as an image-maker and the need for these images to find a wider audience. His vision of Black America was durably unique, and with each successive show and photobook, we’re collectively realizing just how impactful that photographic voice still is.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $60000 each, largely based on size. 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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