Norton Museum of Art

West Palm Beach, Florida



Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks


The first complete retrospective exhibition of the works of renowned American artist Gordon Parks opens at the Norton Museum of Art on October 30, 1999. Parks is an American Renaissance man who has mastered many media to express an uplifting and influential message of hope in the face of adversity. This exhibition is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and co-curated by Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran, and Deborah Willis, collections coordinator at the Center for African-American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. (left: © Johanna Fiore, Portrait of Gordon Parks, 1997, Iris ink jet print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

Although the 87 year-old Parks is best known as a photojournalist, this retrospective brings together for the first time his photographs with his works as a filmmaker, novelist, poet and musician. Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks begins in the present with several of his most recent images and then, like a cinematic flashback, propels visitors into the past through Parks's early photographs of Kansas that represent his childhood.

The exhibition features 219 photographs, with significant works from each of Parks's major series from 1940 through 1997, combined with his books, music, film and poetry. The result is, in the artist's words, a "tone-poem" that impressionistically tells his own story.

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks was the youngest of 15 children. After his mother died when he was 16, Parks left Kansas for Minneapolis and supported himself by working as a piano player, busboy, basketball player and Civilian Conservation Corpsman. At the age of 25, Parks began to seriously consider photography. While working as a waiter on the Northern Pacific Railroad, he read voraciously, wrote music and through reading the magazines of the day, was introduced to pictures made by social documentary photographers for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration (FSA) Historical Section. The photographers he studied were Ben Shahn , Jack Delano, Carl Mydans,Dorothea Lange, John Vachon, and Walker Evans. "They were photographing poverty, and I knew poverty so well," Parks recalls.

Parks recalls finding a magazine left behind by a passenger on the train which contained a portfolio of photographs of migrant workers and the terrible conditions in which they lived. So moved was Parks by those photographs that he went out and bought his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, at a pawnshop for $7.50. He states that this first purchase was "not much of a camera, but a great name to toss around. I had bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism."

In late 1941 Parks became the first photographer to receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and chose to work with Roy Stryker at the Farm Services Administration (FSA), a government agency designed to call attention to the plight of the needy during the Depression and to create an historical record of social and cultural conditions across the country. He joined FSA in January, 1942, moving his family to Washington, DC, where he encountered a city divided by race and class. Over the next two years, Parks received extensive training as a photojournalist under Stryker's direction. "It's not enough to take one's picture and label it bigot," Stryker told Parks. "You have to get at the source of their bigotry. And that's not easy. The camera becomes a powerful weapon when put to good use." One of the first photos Parks took during that period is now considered his signature image - American Gothic, Washington, D. C., 1942. (right: © Gordon Parks, Ella Watson and Her Grandchildren, Washington, D.C.,1942, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

"So it happened that, in one of the government's most sacred strongholds, I set up my camera for my first professional photograph," recalls Parks. "On the wall was a huge American flag hanging from the ceiling to the floor. I asked [the charwoman, Ella Watson,] to stand before it, placed the mop in one hand; a broom in the other, then instructed her to look into the lens." Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks takes an extensive look at these haunting images from the FSA. (left: © Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D. C., 1942, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

In 1943 the FSA was dissolved for political reasons, but Roy Stryker arranged for Parks to move with him to the Office of War Information (OWI), where Parks was assigned as war correspondent to the 332nd Fighter Group, the first black air corps. He photographed the training program for the corps, but was refused permission to accompany the 332nd fighter group to Europe, denying publicity to African-American participation in the war. He then followed Stryker to the Standard Oil (New Jersey) Photography Project, which allowed some of the best photographers of the time to photograph in small towns and industrial centers throughout the United States. Some of Parks's most striking and influential work was made during this time, including: Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home, Somerville, Maine, 1944; Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1946; Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway, 1945, and Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, NY, 1946. Parks has lent vintage prints of some of these rarely seen images to the exhibition, sharing them publicly for the first time.

In 1944 Parks began to search for a job shooting fashion photos. Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor Alexander Liberman hired Parks to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Following that first assignment, Parks also photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years. During this time Parks also published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).

Parks found fashion photography interesting and rewarding, but also wanted to use his talent as a photojournalist. In 1948 he approached Life magazine and asked for a job photographing the gang wars in Harlem as well as fashions in Paris. He was hired to do both. "Suddenly for me," remembers Parks, "two extremely diverse worlds were about to converge - one of crime, the other of high fashion." In what was to become his trademark style, Parks chose to focus his story on Harlem gangs - concentrating on an individual and the small group around him. l6-year-old Red Jackson was leader of the Midtowners, one of the toughest gangs in New York City. Parks was able to engage his trust, and his photographs show the complexity of their relationship.

In one very famous photograph, Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, (with Cigarette), 1948, Jackson is caught in a moment of reflection as he looks out a broken tenement window. In another, Red Jackson: and Herbie Levy study wounds on face of slain gang member Maurice Gaines, 1948, Jackson and a fellow gang member stare at the body of a friend in his coffin, victim of a gang "rumble." Through these extra-ordinary images, Parks displays not just the violence of the gangs, but the complex humanity of its players, and victims. He is able to go beyond the stereotypical images that most Americans of the time had about Harlem and its underbelly to reveal something poignant and universal about its people.

In 1950 Parks moved to Paris as a European correspondent, photographing in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal for several years. Parks was given great access to the stars, gained their trust and was able to shoot beautiful and touching portraits of them. The exhibition includes his portraits of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossolini during their famous tryst on the island of Stromboli, as well as portraits of Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Gloria Vanderbilt, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others.

One series of photographs included in the exhibition - that perhaps best illustrates his ability to move between such different realms for the sake of his work - was shot in Estoril, Portugal, in 1950. He depicted deposed monarchs and wealthy diners, juxtaposed with images of poor children begging for food. Here, the meaning of his photographs stems from the visual dialogue between rich and poor, rather than from one or the other.

In 1956 Parks ventured into the deep South where he photographed an eloquent story about segregation in the United States. Working in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama, in the same year as the Montgomery bus boycott, he documented the effects of segregation on one family. These images, such as Willy Causey and Family, Shady Grove, Alabama, focus on all aspects of everyday life for three generations of the Causey family. Following publication of these pictures in Life, the Causey family was forced to leave home as the civil rights movement was just gaining momentum. The following year Parks followed the police in Chicago for a major story about crime. (left: © Gordon Parks, Ethel Shariff in Chicago, 1957, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; right: © Gordon Parks, Department Store, Birmingham, Alabama, 1956, Ilfochrome print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

One of the most poignant and successful projects Parks completed for Life was about Flavio Da Silva, a young boy he met in the slums of Brazil. In 1961 he was assigned to photograph poverty against the backdrop of cosmopolitan Rio de Janeiro. Like his essays about Harlem Gangs and segregation, he focused on the impact of his theme on individuals. He photographed Flavio, his parents, brothers and sisters, living together in a one-room shack in the midst of extreme poverty. Parks photographed and wrote about the family's reliance on their son and his deteriorating health, detailing a story, which has become a classic example of photojournalism. When this story was published, readers contributed money to help with Flavio's medical care. Eventually, he was brought to the United States for treatment, and other money contributed was used to buy a new home for his family and help educate him and his siblings. (left: © Gordon Parks, Boy at Carnival, Brazil, 1962, Ilfochrome print, Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

By the 1960s Parks was one of the most influential photojournalists of his time. Along with many other projects he continued his work about civil rights in the United States. In 1963 he also published the autobiographical novel The Learning Tree. Life commissioned Parks to create a series of photographs that evoked personal memories of his childhood, based on this book. These images were published in the magazine with his memoir, "How It Feels to Be Black," an emotional essay that brought together his personal and social concerns. The same year he documented the Black Muslims, including Malcolm X, in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, detailing the development of education and self-reliance in this emerging religious and social movement. When Life printed Parks's passionate close-up of a crying girl's face on the cover of a 1967 issue about poverty in the U.S., he again connected readers to the real-life emotions of one family. For this assignment he photographed the Fontennelle family at home in a Harlem welfare office, evoking their personal struggles and the children's perseverance.

Parks began to manipulate color photographs in 1958. The following year Life published a series that were made to accompany poems that he selected. These works evoke the rhythmic visual imagery found in the poetry. His experiments include multiple exposures, collage and painting on pictures. He has continued this process through the present, and has evolved a lyrical style that fluctuates between realism and abstraction. This exhibition highlights early work from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, including his famous Leopard, Brazil, 1962, and Chimney Tops, Paris, 1964 and fashions, landscapes and nudes from the mid-1960s through the 1980s. Parks's most recent works, made in the 1990s are abstract landscapes, photographed in the studio using combinations of shells, flowers, paintings and complex lighting. These are printed with the aid of computer imaging as Iris-jet prints, More than twenty of these new works are included.

In addition to The Learning Tree, Parks has written three other books about his life: A Choice of Weapons; To Smile in Autumn; and Voices in the Mirror. In addition, Parks has published several volumes of poetry combined with his photographs, including Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera; Gordon Parks: Whispers of lntimate Things; Gordon Parks: In Love, Moments Without Proper Names; Arias of Silence; and Glimpses Toward Infinity. His films include Flavio, Diary of a Harlem Family; The Learning Tree; Shaft; Shaft's Big Score; Super Cops; Leadbelly; Solomon Northrup's Odyssey; and Martin. Parks's musical compositions of classical, blues, and popular music - including a symphony, sonatas, concertos, and a ballet - have been performed internationally.

The Norton Museum of Art is pleased to be a part of the much-anticipated exhibition Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks. Parks's art expresses the lessons of his early life and imparts these to future generations. This exhibition unlocks the door to this uncommon and uncompromising vision.

Made possible by Ford Motor Company and Time Warner Inc., Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks is being presented at 15 venues as part of a national touring program. Additional support has been provided by the Glen Eagles Foundation, Cone-Laumont Editions, Ltd., Laumont Labs, and Time Life Photo Laboratories. The local presentation of this exhibition is underwritten in part by the corporate sponsorship of NationsBank and a grant from the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, Inc.


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/1/10

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