In “I AM YOU,” Gordon Parks Tells It Like It Is

Photo: From “I AM YOU: Selected Works, 1942-1978 (Steidl/ The Gordon Parks Foundation/ C/O Berlin). Edited by Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. and Felix Hoffman,

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapon against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or gun, like many of my childhood friends did,” American photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006) revealed.

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Parks understood that photography possessed the power to change the way we see and understand the world by speaking a language entirely its own. Seeing is believing, as the old saw goes, which is why representation matters. But representation is only the first step; truth is the pinnacle to which great artists aspire to reach.

Jeweled Cap, Malibu, California, 1958

Parks was not only a master of the medium, he was an activist using his work to propel political and social change throughout the twentieth century. He decided to become a photographer while working as a waiter in a railroad dining car, after observing passengers read picture magazines for pleasure. At the age of 25, he purchased his first camera and began to shoot, never putting his weapon down until the Lord called him home.

For seven decades, Parks documented the world in which he lived, smoothly code switching from Conde Nast to Civil Rights before going on to take it to the big screen with Shaft in 1971, helping to bring black filmmakers to the forefront of Hollywood. Throughout it all, he stayed true to himself, representing African American art, culture, and politics on the world stage with grace, strength, and nerve.

Untitled, Alabama, 1956

Parks could photograph top models and socialites for Vogue with the same sensitivity and delicacy he brought to the story of segregation in the South. Perhaps it was Parks’ dignity and self-respect that enabled him to see people as individuals first, effectively obliterating disgraceful stereotypes. His photographs reveal a man who gazed upon the world and bestowed grace and beauty upon it no matter its form.

And so it is fitting that the newest collection of his photographs is simply titled I AM YOU: Selected Works, 1942-1978 (Steidl/ The Gordon Parks Foundation/ C/O Berlin). Edited by Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. and Felix Hoffman, the book features a compelling array of highlights from seminal series made for picture magazines over four decades including Harlem Gang Leader, Back to Fort Scott, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder, A Man Becomes Invisible, Fashion, Segregation in the South, Duke Ellington, Muhammad Ali, The March on Washington, and Black Muslims, among others.

Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956

Felix Hoffman writes in the book’s introduction, “Photojournalism was–and is—interested primarily in decisive, individual, isolable, often transitory moments. The origins of photojournalism lie in the work of photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose published shots unite a plot, a situation, and a mood in a single frame. The notion of time that underlies such an artistic concept is linear; an image is as open to he previous moment as it is to the next. This approach can be applied easily to singular events. But what if, rather than a specific moment, a more general condition is to be represented, if a repeated occurrence is to be shown in such a way that its recurrent nature is also visible?”

This is where Gordon Parks changed the game, becoming one of the first practitioners of New Journalism decades before the genre  was named. Perhaps it was his life experience that enabled him to see that it is impossible, or simply unnecessary, to isolate a single image to tell the story. The continuum of human experience and human history is simply too vast, too complex, and too interconnected to impose arbitrary rules upon it.

Untitled, New York, New York, 1957

Instead, Parks set forth to tell the story as a sequence, just as one would do with a book. While each image beautifully encapsulates a chapter, taken together, the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Which is one of the reasons I AM YOU is utterly magnificent: looking at Parks’ essays in sequence creates an astounding effect, one of a man who understood that the truth was far more nuanced than the mass media would have you know. That there are no simple answers to questions but we must continue to ask, to examine with great tenderness whether we are looking at the impact of crime and poverty or music and art.

“I have always felt as though I needed a weapon against evil,” Parks revealed, and in the creation of an incomparable body of work he has bequeathed this need to serve the greater good of humanity.

Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1948

All Photos: by Gordon Parks. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.