Exhibit | Visual Justice: The Gordon Parks Photography Collection at WSU
Gordon Parks, Red Jackson, Harlem, New York, 1948
In speaking with Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, Gordon Parks observed, “You have a 45mm automatic pistol on your lap, and I have a 35mm camera on my lap, and my weapon is just as powerful as yours.”
A noted photographer, musician, writer, and film director, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a great humanitarian who used his craft to advance the cause of African-Americans in fine art and popular culture. Photographing for Life and Vogue magazines as well as directing the 1971 film Shaft, Parks helped to redefine the image of African Americans in the mainstream media. In many ways, Parks’ life embodies the spirit of the American Dream, as he used his talents to rise out of rural poverty any become one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. As Parks rightly observed, “The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.” Parks lived by those words, and in doing so, has created one of the most enduring bodies of work the world has ever known.
Wichita State University has long embraced a special relationship Parks, a Kansas native himself. For the past forty years, the Ulrich Museum at WSU has hosted a series of important exhibitions of his work over the past forty years, culminating in the 2008 acquisition of the Gordon Parks Papers for WSU Library Special Collections. In 2014, the museum acquired 125 photographs from The Gordon Parks Foundation.
A selection of Parks’ work is currently on view in Visual Justice: The Gordon Parks Photography Collection at WSU at the Ulrich Museum through April 10, 2016. The exhibition includes works from his best-known photo essays for Life magazine, including Harlem Gang Leader, 1948, Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961; The Restraints: Open and Hidden (1956), The White Devil’s Day is Almost Over (1963), and A Harlem Family (1968).
Visual Justice is conceived as a celebration of Parks’ work as an artist and humanitarian. As curator John Edwin Mason explains, “As Visual Justice makes clear, however, Parks’ photography was not limited to searing essays on poverty or social justice. As a member of Life’s staff, his assignments included everything from high fashion to Benedictine monks to experimental color images. Visual Justice opens a window onto this extraordinary work. Parks’ passion for photography never abated. Poetic abstract photographs that he made near the end of his life are also included in the exhibition.”
As Parks observed, “…I could not deny that I had stepped a great distance from the mainstream of Negro life… In the fulfilling of my artistic and professional ambitions in the white man’s world, I had to become completely involved in it. …Eventually, I found myself on a plateau of loneliness, not knowing really where I belonged. In one world I was a social oddity. In the other I was almost a stranger.”
Perhaps it is this duality that enables Parks to transcend the racial boundaries that are externally—and internally—imposed on so many people in this country. As he observed, “I’ve known both misery and happiness, lived in so many different skins it is impossible for one skin to claim me. And I have felt like a wayfarer on an alien planet at times —walking, running, wondering about what brought me to this particular place, and why. But once I was here the dreams started moving in, and I went about devouring them as they devoured me.”
All photos: Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita. Courtesy of and © 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.