Gordon Parks, Segregation Story @Salon 94 Freemans

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 1956 and printed recently. The works range in size from 14×14 to 30×30, and are alternately available in editions of 7+2AP, 10+2AP, and 15+3AP based on size. The exhibit has been organized in conjunction with the Gordon Parks Foundation and Howard Greenberg Gallery. A monograph of this body of work was published by Steidl (here) in conjunction with a 2015 exhibit at the High Museum of Art (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1956, Gordon Parks went to Alabama on assignment for LIFE magazine, tasked with creating a visual portrait of segregation in the Jim Crow South. While it might have been tempting for Parks to seek out obvious points of active friction and headline-grabbing conflict, looking for injustice and inequality made dramatic by the infusion of tension and simmering violence, he actually took an alternate and more indirect path. In his short time there, Parks settled into everyday life with three local families (the Thorntons, Causeys, and Tanners) and made intimate pictures that captured the understated nuances and realities of segregated life. Ultimately published as a powerful 26-image photo-essay in the magazine, his vignettes made the personal details of segregation real for a wider portion of America, and turned the national discussion toward how lives were actually being impacted by these laws and behaviors. As a body of work, it is a powerful example of how quiet easy going elegance can deliver a message with more thunderous force than brash shock tactics.

Parks was particularly careful and selective when he pointed his camera at overt symbols of segregation like whites-only signage. With the exception of one roadside real estate ad offering “Lots for Colored” (which he leaves on its own without further visual context aside from the scrubby weeds), every segregated burger stand, drinking fountain, and department store entrance is shot accompanied by families and children, neatly dressed and behaving like any other American family, waiting for their orders, digging in their purses, in flouncy Sunday dresses and party shoes. The injustice is still indelibly present in these pictures (it’s shouting in red neon in one case), but it is both made ridiculous by the contrasts and ignored with casual dignity.

Two pictures from the project are studies in physical separation, both with African-American kids on the outside looking in. One finds a gaggle of children behind a chain link fence, staring at the manicured park and play area (with teeter totter and Ferris wheel) on the other side – it’s a poignantly sad picture of innocent kids being excluded from summertime fun. Another follows a handsome grandmother and her granddaughter as they window shop, the small girl peering through the glass at the white mannequins in fancy dresses, and again, Parks uses the barrier as a sharply symbolic dividing line, preventing this family from the simple joys others take for granted.

Most of the other pictures in the series capture the details of making the best of an obviously limited and imperfect life. Families gather on the porches of poorly built houses on dusty lots, finding peace in multi-generational togetherness. Men (and young boys) mostly find work in the sunny farm fields, taking a break in the cool shade of the river side. A single room school house with an ancient blackboard and cast iron stove offers a meager chance at education. People make do, setting up improvised barber shops in their living rooms, playing kids’ games in the middle of the muddy street, and guarding the young ones against the threat of violence. As we follow Parks through these details, their weight slowly piles up; every picture is both a straightforward document and a understated indictment of segregation, allowing us to experience its parade of small injustices first hand.

A single otherwise unrelated shot from the Atlanta airport makes evident the risks Parks was taking to make these pictures. A white woman and her African-American nanny sit in the waiting lounge, the nanny holding the white baby while the distant mother sits at arms’ length in fancy traveling clothes. Given the segregated reality he was documenting, Parks could never have taken the picture directly, so it seems to have been shot surreptitiously, either over the shoulder of another nearby passenger or perhaps with the camera pointed back at himself. Either way, the interrupting head gives the photograph a sense of palpable fleeting danger.

All of these images were thought to have been lost back at the time of the original magazine article, but were unearthed recently (as transparencies) at the Gordon Parks Foundation, so what’s on view here are modern posthumous prints, certainly printed meaningfully larger than Parks would have made at the time. In general, posthumous prints raise all kinds of thorny questions – the artist wasn’t involved and so all of the tiny decisions made in the presentation of the work are called into doubt. In this case, the new prints have allowed an important set of photographs that had been forgotten to be introduced to a new generation of viewers, and while we might quibble about the likely fidelity to Parks’ original vision, these pictures are undeniably an empathetic cultural landmark.

What Parks does so masterfully in these pictures is to intermingle the ordinary with the inexplicable, bouncing universal hopes and dreams through the filter of segregation. By consciously underplaying his hand, he makes his point with even more emphatic precision.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $5000 and $45000 based on size. Parks’ work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $23000.

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