A broken window concedes to the deluge of sunlight. The light enables one to only make out his austere visage. Fit snugly at the corner of his mouth, his half-smoked cigarette fumes away.
He has a firm grasp on the left side of the window. Has he just opened the window, or is he in the process of closing it? He leans forward, a gesture of impending action, or is it? Does he find respite in this urban vantage, or is it a vantage point, where he plans to target his next quarry?
Meet Red Jackson, a subject of African-American photographer Gordon Parks. In many ways, Jackson is a typical teenager–he reads to his younger brother, does his chores and relaxes at home. But Jackson is also gang banger. Parks follows the prosaic details of this seventeen-year-old Harlem gang leader during the 1940s; his attraction to the subject
was brought about by the scene of gang wars in Harlem at the time. Loeb Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning Mary- Kay Lombino, explained, “Gordon Parks really wanted to bring awareness to these different parts of his life. Parks was really excited to show the world—the white world—this young man.”
Parks’ photographic essay “Harlem Gang Leader” was published by Life Magazine in 1948. But he was not pleased with the finished piece Life published. Lombino explained, “The exhibit really explores this idea of editing and manipulating photography. Parks took hundreds of photos of this young man, photos in the home, photos on the street, photos with family…just really a representation of his life and Life ended up publishing something that just portrayed a violent thug in the streets.”
“Harlem Gang Leader” indeed holds aesthetic, artistic value. However, it also raises peculiarities about Life’s editorial process, or lack thereof, when they published only certain parts of Parks’ work. Surely, this fact renders Life Magazine eponymously ironic, but the narrative untold brings in a third-party—the audience. The cognizance of the editorial process prompts the spectator’s curiosity to string together images, present or not, and add momentum to the story Parks and/or Life’s editors attempt to tell.
Parks’ photos are the subject of a new exhibit in the Loeb, which opens on Friday. “The exhibit shows all of Parks’ pictures without any labels or captions and then also includes copies of Life Magazine’s original article. So you can look just for the sake of looking because these are beautiful photos and then you can see the difference in representation—you can see what Parks saw and then what the world saw through the Life article. That’s why it’s called Making An Argument, because this juxtaposition slowly reveals a story coming together, a narrative being created,” explained Lombino. At the Loeb, with the full range of photos on display, the spectator can ultimately be the raconteur. Coordinator of Public Education and Information Margaret Vetare wrote, “I’m especially interested in sharing the Gordon Parks exhibition with teenage groups because it’s such fertile ground for discussing the media’s role in shaping our understanding of events and situations. Our culture is at this point completely saturated with media, so it’s important for young people to develop the skills to look at their visual world critically. Because of the way it’s organized, with Parks’ original photos and then the edited versions as they appeared in Life magazine, an exhibition like ‘The Making of an Argument’ is a great reminder to try to identify, or at least question, whose voice we are hearing in the narratives presented to us daily.”
The Life Magazine debacle shaped much of Parks’ later work. According to Lombino, “This really shaped Parks. He thought this was his chance to really get through to people and explore race in an honest way but it all blew up. After that, he really wanted to have more influence and control of his work. He wanted to take back what was taken from him in the published piece.”
The exhibit was first on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where Lombino knew the curator, Russell Lord. It then made its way to Grinnell College. Here, Lombino said she realized how relevant the exhibit could be at Vassar and worked with Grinnell and NOMA to bring the exhibit to campus. “It has a lot of tie-ins with issues we are experiencing and dealing with on campus. Parks really wanted to explore race and class. There is so much behind the pictures themselves and the greater story of the Life Magazine article that comments on these themes,” she explained.
These black and white photographic still lives from Harlem in the 1940s constitute the very vestiges of the antecedent Harlem Renaissance. The context and means by which Parks became a significant figure in American social realist art are critical to a more comprehensive understanding of not only Parks but also contemporary African-American culture.
Art History major Sophie Asakura ’17 noted the important perspective this exhibit will bring to the Loeb in an emailed statement. She explained, “I think the inclusion of documentary photography in our museum is an important contribution to its status as an educational tool. The show will help us think twice about mainstream media and its relationship with the individual artistic process, race and the creation of narrative.”
Parks was born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, where segregation and racial discrimination were beyond present. He purchased his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, at a pawnshop in Seattle. His first roll of photographs grabbed the attention of developers at a women’s clothing store in Minnesota. After seeing Parks’ photographs, in 1940, Marva Louis, wife of boxer Joe Louis, advised Parks to move to Chicago, and so he did. Chicago gave Parks the opportunity to explore the African-American community and, thereby, an opportunity to find his original angle as a photographer. His photographic endeavors eventually took him to the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he studied under Roy Stryker. His work flourished under Stryker. Parks continued his photographic encounters with the African-American community, including fashion, sports, racism, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Parks was also an active writer, painter, musician, composer and film director. Plain and simple, a true Renaissance Man he was.
Pindyck Intern for the Loeb, Alex Raz ’16, was responsible for making sure visitors learned about this additional collection of Parks’ works. He explained, “In this role I helped with the exhibition checklist, and I helped layout the exhibition. Also, I did a good deal of general research for myself. The most significant part of this role though was creating a website for the iPad to display in the gallery to highlight the many other parts of Parks’ career that aren’t included in the exhibition’s focus.”
But ultimately, Parks’ body of work as a whole had a powerful cultural influence. “He radically changed photo-journalism, and confronted a white audience with truths about their own place and power,” said Raz. “The exhibition opens up a variety of questions that are germane not only to this campus, but race relations in the United States, such as how artists of color navigate a white-dominated environment, issues of entitlement in co-opting the stories and art of people of color, and looking at Parks’ whole career, examining the struggle to fight oppression from an inherently oppressive environment.”