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GORDON PARKS: PART ONE, 1 JULY – 8 AUGUST 2020

GORDON PARKS: PART TWO, 1 SEPTEMBER  – 1 OCTOBER 2020

Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

Reviewed by Lisa Goodrum

On the first wall of part one of this exhibition, Gordon Parks’ own words were invoked: ‘I feel it is the heart, not the eye, that should determine the content of the photograph.’ What he might have added, however, and what was left powerfully unspoken throughout the display, was that the heart also prompts your response to his work. Attending this exhibition without carrying with you the sheer weight of our recent pandemic-riven history was impossible. Try as you might, and despite Parks’ determination to focus on the quotidian activities of his subjects, the questions that babbled potently through the sleek monochrome gallery space were: how was the prejudice referenced in Parks’ photographs ever allowed to happen, and how far have we really come? Portraying his sitters’ everyday existence was a conscious decision by Parks to document Black people’s humanity, but over sixty years later in 2020, the world –  most conspicuously the previous US administration – has shown that they are still required to prove it. 

The force of history clung stubbornly to every particle of the gallery’s air, and in this atmosphere the past and present seemed tethered somewhat uneasily together. The stark white walls and the white picture frames heightened the visibility of Parks’ images but didn’t overwhelm them, and the achromatic setting supported the overwhelming sense that his work required no additional ornamentation. It was already suffocated by those powerful aspects of the Black experience that Parks chose not to capture, and the viewer’s knowledge that we have recently witnessed scenes of violence and police brutality similar to those that pockmarked the Jim Crow landscape upon which he turned his lens. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, for example, was a crime very nearly committed with the same impunity as those that had occurred prior to the decades-old assignment. 

Life magazine asked Parks to go to Alabama and photograph that state after the explosive Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. For his subjects Parks chose the extended Thornton family, the images of whom in this exhibition act as symbols for ‘The Restraints: Open and Hidden’ (as the magazine termed them) that lurked below the surface of their daily lives. In Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, the couple sit formally on their sofa staring into the camera. Above them on the modest, whitewashed clapboard wall is their wedding photograph, where the shy young couple debut the stiff pose that they replicate below. Unlike other civil-rights era photojournalism and reportage, Parks’ images are in colour, divesting them of the sense of struggle that permeate other contemporary depictions. This image is clever for that very reason and for its juxtaposition of the past and present, a binary opposition that extends throughout the entire exhibition. This duality compels both viewers and Parks’ subjects to exist within a tension of temporality where time itself becomes fluid and change is negligible. In this condition the viewer immediately wonders what this couple may have encountered during their long marriage. The unflinching resolution etched into their faces indicates a difficult past and their preparation for whatever this new period of American life might bring. One senses that had they been able to speak freely they would have been voluble. The Life magazine exhibited alongside Parks’ photographs describes the ‘constant fear of publicly speaking their minds’ and it is this trepidation that lends the photographer’s technicolour tableau an ominous undercurrent. 

In another image we see a little girl sitting on a high-backed chair. Her elbow rests nonchalantly on the top of it and her chin rests in the crook of her elbow. She gazes wistfully at the camera, and although her face and eyes contain a maturity and wisdom that prompts the viewer to consider what she may have already experienced, her expression is not unhappy. Perhaps she is thinking of her future, contemplating the changes it could bring and asking whether it will impact her present circumstances at all. Behind her are her playmates, two other young girls who also stare into the camera. One has a shy expression and has ducked her head, almost as if she is hoping that she will escape the esteemed photographer’s notice and dissolve into the background. The other girl (who appears older) stands with her arms akimbo and glares defiantly into the lens, her face set in a look of challenge as if daring Parks to photograph the trio as possessing anything but inherent humanity and value. The girls stand within a sparsely populated landscape that speaks to a rural and possibly agricultural existence. The red and white car behind them idles on a dirt track bearing the rusty tint (due to the largely clay subsoil) that is common throughout the Southern states. Its inclusion furnishes the image with a distinct geographic signifier and places it within a semi-bucolic realm, but Parks evokes the pastoral only to juxtapose it with the close-up of his main subject, who already seems to bear the knowledge that this is no Eden; especially for little girls who look like her. 

Speaking his mind was not something that daunted the subject of the second part of this exhibition. When Gordon Parks met Muhammad Ali in 1963, the photographer told the young boxer that his aim was to determine whether the heavyweight was really as arrogant as had been widely reported. The intimacy of the images that Parks captured provide a more nuanced answer to his question and represent the private moments of an alternative, more humble character. In one particularly affective image Ali is seen praying in his bathroom. The chiaroscuro generated by the partly open door and the dark corridor illuminates the boxer, who stands with his head bent and his hands raised in devotion. The vulnerability within this image not only implies that the imposing figure is everything the brash showman is not, it also doubles as a sympathetic portrait of Islam after Ali’s 1964 conversion baffled the boxing fraternity. Parks’ photographs not only introduced a different side of Ali to the world, they also continued the sensitive portrayal of Black Muslims that he had begun in the series of that name three years earlier.

Most striking, however, were the ways in which Parks’ images conveyed how Ali transcended sport to become a cultural icon. Soundtracking the exhibition’s second room was an interview with the boxer himself. His mellifluous voice flowed throughout that space and made the arguments about representation and diversity that have become more familiar to us this year. Ali was a man who refused to be humbled by the colour of his skin, or to believe that it could limit his impact upon the world, and the exhibition’s use of this interaction between the pugilist and his interlocutor represents a verbal sparring. The rhythm of the boxer’s voice channels the flurry of combinations that became one of his trademarks and left his opponents astounded. Like his competitors, the interviewer is unable to withstand Ali’s emphatic observations and arguments. His pronouncements are the rhetorical knockouts that raised him to an iconic status inside and outside of his community. In another alignment of past and present, the actor Chadwick Boseman had died five days prior to my visiting this exhibit. His portrayal of the Black Panther in the Marvel film of the same name cemented his status as a role model in the Black community, and Parks’ photographs left me with little choice but to compare the actor and the boxer. Almost sixty years earlier, Ali had embodied the same hope and engendered a similar pride, which explained why the deaths of both of these men prompted such an outpouring of grief and affection. 

It is fitting that for a lifelong humanitarian, the images in this exhibition conveyed the humanity – that had been questioned and legally denied so many times – of Parks’ sitters. By focusing on the minutiae of their daily lives, the photographer reached beyond the literal and creative stereotypes that were the hallmarks of most civil-rights era photojournalism. In his images of Muhammad Ali we become privy to a private and humble man surrounded by an inner circle and guided by his faith; while in Segregation in the South, Parks departed from the black and white photography that acted as a metaphor for the violence and hardship that plagued the region’s Black population. In defying these artistic conventions Parks bequeathed his subjects alternative identities and indicated to viewers that nothing and nobody can be easily categorised. Life and indeed humans are infinitely more complex than that. It was apt then that I left this display with complexity being my overriding impression, for Gordon Parks himself defies classification. For a man whose oeuvre spanned so many genres, including composing, poetry, photography and directing, Parks was never going to rely on clichéd tropes or paradigmatic constructs to tell the story of those he photographed. His heart saw far beyond those limitations.