Gordon Parks, I Am You | Part 1 @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 43 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the front and back gallery spaces, the office area, and the connecting hallway. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 19 gelatin silver prints (with black borders), 1941/posthumous, 1946/posthumous, 1950/posthumous, 1951/posthumous, 1952/posthumous, 1954/posthumous, 1960/posthumous, 1966/posthumous, 24×20 (or reverse) or 20×16 (or reverse), editions of 10+2AP or 15+3AP
  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1946/lifetime, 1949/lifetime, 1951/lifetime, 1952/lifetime, 1954/lifetime, 1963/lifetime, 14×11, 20×16 (or reverse), or 20×30
  • 2 iris prints, 1995, 32×44, 30×24
  • 14 archival pigment prints, 1956/posthumous, 1957/posthumous, 1958/posthumous, 1959/posthumous, 1962/posthumous, 1963/posthumous, 1978/posthumous, 20×16 (or reverse), 28×28, or 34×34, in editions of 10+2AP, 15+3AP, or 7+2AP

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2016 by Steidl (here).

Comments/Context: When we think about the photography of Gordon Parks, what often comes first to mind is his pioneering work as a photojournalist. As the first African-American staff photographer at LIFE magazine in the late 1940s, he made now iconic photo essays on the civil rights movement, segregation, poverty, and life in Harlem, sensitively exposing a broad audience to the realities of black life in America in ways that many had never seen before.

But Parks’ photographic interests and contributions were by no means limited to documenting social conditions and racial injustice, and this smartly edited show does a commendable job of bringing another lesser-known Gordon Parks into focus. Breadth is the key takeaway here, with images ranging from celebrity and artist portraiture and fashion photography to Modernist patterns and constructed color abstractions. When we add in Parks’ efforts as an accomplished composer, author, and filmmaker, his creative range as an artist becomes undeniably impressive.

Parks’ fashion shots were consistently innovative in terms of their composition. Out in the streets of New York, he let the pop of a single garment (often surrounded by the muted glamour of tuxedoed men) find its place against the wider backdrop of the city, with views down Park and Fifth Avenues used as settings for stylish parading. Two color images from the late 1950s introduce a version of a circular telescope motif (like the one used in James Bond movies), picking out models in skin tight suits and jeweled swim caps inside crisply delineated arcs. Other works use seeing though something as a common approach, with models isolated against closer blurred surroundings. This keyhole effect centers all of our attention on a single figure in a ravishing outfit, the red underside of a shiny black coat or a sparkle against saturated yellow adding energy to the moment. And in a Revlon shoot from the late 1970s, Parks reintroduced this idea of openings, finding statuesque African-American models posing with African sculpture, with echoes of hair and elongated forms mixing past and present.

When he turned his lens to artists and celebrities, he was equally inventive. A young Langston Hughes sets his head outside a frame, raising his hand against an invisible barrier. Ingrid Bergman is caught in a pensive moment during the filming of Roberto Rosselini’s Stromboli in 1949, with three Italian ladies in severe black looking on with wary distrust. Alexander Calder is shown as a disembodied hand activating one of his mobiles. And Alberto Giacometti poses underneath the spindly form of his Falling Man, the elongated hand of another sculpture stretching in from the side, as if to catch the leaning form. Even Parks himself is given rare self-portrait treatment, the bulky camera and the photographer’s own eyes boring in with equal intensity.

The rest of the show is a kaleidoscope of photographic ideas. We see Parks tracking shoes on the streets of Paris, looking at TV screens, finding circular patterns in commuters’ hats and sewer pipes, and using foreground interruptions like long grass and carnival pinwheels to add atmosphere to portraits of young boys. Perhaps the two most unexpected works on view are a pair of color abstractions from the mid 1990s. From afar, the two images look like undulating landscapes, tinted red and green respectively, but up close, those hills and mountains turn out to be studio constructions made of layers of torn paper and gauze, each image an effective bit of visual trickery.

This exhibit confirms that Parks was more of a polymath than a specialist, his artistic talents effortlessly spanning genres and approaches not normally pursued by a single photographer. Eclectic backstory exhibits like this one remind us that artists like Parks are more than the simple thumbnails (and stereotypes) we use to remind ourselves of their key accomplishments. In an effort to round out more robust, three-dimensional portraits of artists and their interests, we often need to look beyond their primary fame, to see the contours of the lesser known interests, pursuits, and activities that filled out their lives.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $10000 and $35000. Parks’ work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $23000.

Read more about: Gordon Parks, Jack Shainman Gallery, Steidl

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