As Chris Cobb writes moving in the journal Hyperallergic, “when Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to document the daily lives of three black families living in Alabama, it was 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott. He knew he could have gotten beaten or killed — but he went there anyway.
He was in Alabama shortly after Rosa Parks became world famous for not giving up her seat to a white man and around the same time the Klu Klux Klan had mobilized to defend segregation. In other words, Parks’s assignment was to become a fly on the wall during one of the most turbulent times in American history. While there, he witnessed, among other things, the emergence of a young leader named Martin Luther King Jr., then known as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
But Parks was not there to photograph King; he was always in the foreground. On the contrary, Life wanted Parks to reveal what had always been in the background — ordinary black families — and show the magazine’s readers how they really lived. The project was to be a counterpoint to misinformation spread by segregationists who claimed that a racially separated, caste-based society was good for everyone.
So Parks followed various people around, going to the store, to the mall, to playgrounds, and to school; he hung out at their ramshackle homes, most of which looked like they were straight out of the 19th century, which they probably were, and took pictures everywhere he went.
In the end, Life published just 26 of those photographs — all shot on color slide film — and then the rest were put away in a small box and forgotten. Since that time, nobody has seen them — not until they were rediscovered in 2012 by archivists at the Gordon Parks Foundation. The gorgeous, large prints now on view at Salon 94 are a selection of those images, and like a candle in a dark room they illuminate that long-forgotten history.
Significantly, most images of the Civil Rights era are in black and white, shot mostly by photojournalists. Parks, however, was no ordinary photographer — he was an artist who happened to also be a photographer and as these pictures show, he frequently deviated from his journalistic impulses to capture what can only be considered great art.
The central photograph in the show is unmistakably brilliant and, I’d say, somewhat of a modern masterpiece. ‘Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956′ surpasses the documentary tradition Parks excelled at, transforming everything in his viewfinder into charged symbolic space.
To get this image Parks placed himself on the other side of a big glass display case that was full of white-skinned mannequins and framed a woman and her grandchild in such a way that it seems as if the little girl were being guided through a forest of white, soulless zombies. You get the sense the woman and girl must tread lightly and be careful — lest they awaken these dangerous figures.
The sweetness of the gesture and the vibrant image shot in radiant color evoke both warmth and danger at the same time. More striking yet is the almost invisible reflection of the photographer in the window. It is not a didactic image; it is composed more like a Botticelli painting or a mannerist allegory.
About this photograph, Parks Foundation official Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said, ‘So this is Ondria Tanner and her granddaughter looking into a white clothing store and sort of the life she doesn’t have … and you know Gordon really didn’t stage these pictures. He would follow them around and just observe what they were doing.’”
I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Gordon Parks in 1969, when he was moving from still photography into motion picture direction with The Learning Tree (1969), a truly pioneering film about civil rights which Parks wrote and directed. To my mind, at least, it is a forgotten American masterpiece, even though the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
But it still needs to be seen more often, as does his still photography work, which made his initial reputation as an artist of the first rank. I was working as a writer at Life at the time, for a new magazine that never came about – Life Movie – and Gordon Parks walked into my office one day, and we sat down and talked for awhile. He was kind, generous, and really excited about making the shift to motion pictures – and he pulled it off magisterially.