A new image appeared in Gordon Parks' lens

September 28, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

HOW IN THIS rage shall beauty hold a plea, whose action is no stronger than a flower?"

Few men of this century have been more driven by Shakespeare's question than Gordon Parks, whose photographs form the subject of a major retrospective at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. The show will run through Jan. 11.

Parks is sometimes described as a Renaissance man. Over a career spanning more than half a century, he has expressed his vision as film director, author and composer.

Yet he first achieved national prominence as a staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked for 20 years, and it is mainly through the camera that he had his greatest impact on American art and culture.

In this he is an anomaly. For apart from a few important exceptions, African-Americans have not been allowed to make a significant imprint upon the visual culture of this country comparable to their contributions to music, dance and literature.

Instead, the visual record of the African-American presence has been overwhelmingly the creation of white artists, whose images were crafted largely to reinforce a set of severely restricted stereotypes of black identity.

As the critic Guy C. McElroy observed, the ways that America's leading visual artists portrayed the African-American constitute an index that reveals how the majority of Americans felt about their black neighbors.

"Prosperous collectors created a demand for depictions that fulfilled their own ideas of blacks as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers or threatening subhumans," McElroy wrote.

"These depictions were, for the most part, willingly supplied by American artists. This vicious cycle of supply and demand sustained images that denied the inherent humanity of black people by reinforcing their limited role in American society."

Such was the state of the country's visual culture regarding race at the turn of the century, when Parks was born. Although the impact of European modernism had to some extent mitigated the worst expressions of racism in elite visual arts like painting and sculpture, the country's popular imagery remained vitriolic.

Only in photography was the possibility of a more nuanced African-American identity occasionally acknowledged, most notably in the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others who produced the monumental documentary portrait of rural America for the federal Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.

The FSA photographers appropriated the rural subjects of earlier American genre painters, but their reformist mission in the service of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal demanded a degree of honesty and integrity in the portrayal of both the white and black rural poor that previously would have been unthinkable.

Parks was profoundly influenced by their work and eventually joined the FSA, where he produced his first important picture, a portrait of a black cleaning woman in Washington, standing in front of an American flag with her broom and mop.

Parks called the picture "American Gothic," after the classic painting of the same name by Grant Wood. When Roy Stryker, Parks' boss at the FSA, saw it, he recognized at once that it was a revolutionary image.

"Well, you're catching on," he said, "but that picture could get us all fired."

What Parks had done was literally create a new way of seeing African-American personality in the American visual arts tradition.

In this, his accomplishment complemented the achievements of writers like novelist Richard Wright and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1920s and '30s, these writers created a wholely new way of representing African-American identity through the written word.

Parks' photographs gave concrete visual expression to this new black identity just as the blues and jazz of the period were giving it new musical expression.

He had come along at a moment when photography had taken over the representation of ordinary people, and he exploited the aesthetic breakthroughs of the FSA photographers to invest previously invisible and downtrodden blacks with unmistakable humanity and dignity. In doing so, he became the most influential chronicler of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. His pictures helped mobilize the nation against the injustice of segregation and discrimination in the South.

Like the genre painters, Parks' pictures told stories.

From them it is clear, for example, that he loved women. They represented for him, as for countless artists before him, all that was beautiful, enduring and true about the human condition.

He photographed desperately poor mothers in Harlem and high fashion models, stolid farm women and elegant society ladies, young and old, glamorous and plain, all with an appreciation of their individual uniqueness and an intensity of feeling that bordered on obsession.

It is clear, too, that his capacity for empathy with his subjects was seemingly inexhaustible. He became friend and confidant to the notable people he photographed, from Ingrid Bergman and Leonard Bernstein to Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. For years he kept track of a slum dweller in Brazil and a gang leader in Harlem whose stories he had photographed for Life.

What still astonishes is his limitless creativity and a personal courage that allowed him to overcome a childhood marked by poverty and violence to become one of the most respected artists of his generation.

He may have been a Renaissance man, but he was the first to admit that he felt driven to do many different things because he feared failure at any one thing might lead to catastrophe unless he had a fallback position.

Who knows, but perhaps in this he wasn't so different from Michelangelo and Leonardo after all.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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