Gordon Parks ‘Born Black’

Gordon Parks is one of my short list favorite artists. He taught me, as a middle-aged, white man raised in the flag=waving suburbs to see institutional racism in America. Any opportunity to see his photography is a “must-do.” The next best opportunity comes March 7 through April 13, 2024.

Jack Shainman gallery New York presents “Born Black,” an exhibition of Gordon Parks’s photographs—curated in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation. This presentation is inspired by the 1971 book “Gordon Parks: Born Black, A Personal Report on the Decade of Black Revolt 1960-1970,” which brought together a collection of essays and photographs by Parks that were originally created for “Life” magazine.

Translating the essential themes of the text into an exhibition, Jack Shainman explains, “We seek to commemorate Parks’s ground-breaking 1971 anthology, and the enduring impact of his photographs and writing today. This exhibition is an act of expansion—presenting both seminal and lesser-known works from his renowned photographic series, offering contemporary meditations on his incisive eye and insightful prose.”

Gathered in this presentation are images that were featured in, relate to, and extend beyond the photographs illustrated alongside the nine essays in “Born Black.” In each photo essay, it is clear that Parks’s images capture momentous scenes that exceed the limitations of language, and simultaneously, the frankness of his prose grounds the accompanying images with vital sociopolitical context and his personal perspective.

Gordon Parks Photography

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963; gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 inches (print), 15 7/8 x 23 1/4 inches (image)
25 5/8 x 33 1/8 x 1 inches (framed). GPF signed back label. Inventory #GP63.006
Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963; gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 inches (print), 15 7/8 x 23 1/4 inches (image)
25 5/8 x 33 1/8 x 1 inches (framed). GPF signed back label. Inventory #GP63.006. Credit: Photograph by Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

Through his photography and writing—but also clear in his films, literature, and musical compositions—Parks demonstrated the value of empathy and compassion when creating art. Before picking up his camera, he took a vested interest in getting to know his subjects when embarking on a new project, taking time to situate himself both on the frontlines and front porches of the events and lives he covered. Though positioned as an outsider with his camera and pen, as a Black man in America, Parks never shied away from incorporating his nuanced impressions and political solidarity with his subjects, nor did he conceal his personal investment in the experiences, movements, and history he depicted.

Situating himself between the mainstream and the radical, this selection of works displays his efforts to portray Black Americans from youth to adulthood, a multigenerational archive that expresses the inextricable links between the urban and rural, the individual and communal, and the center and periphery. Whether anonymous or celebrated, each of his subjects prompts the viewer’s participation in critically contemplating what it means to be born into, to be shaped by, and to strive to reimagine life in the United States.

His images hold both the force of who is represented and what is symbolized, like the memorialized portraits of Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X shown alongside photographs of crowds gathering to protest against police brutality.

In the final essay of the book, Parks reflects on his conversation with Eldridge Cleaver in which the Black Panther Party leader invited Parks to serve as their minister of information. In response, and reflection, he explained, “my interests go beyond those of the Black Panthers, to other minorities and factions of the black movement who want change…Looking back to that moment I find that I am displeased with my answer. I should have said: Both of us are caught up in the truth of the black man’s ordeal. Both of us are possessed by that truth which we define through separate experience. How we choose to act it out is the only difference. You recognize my scars and I acknowledge yours.”

Parks was attuned to the importance of singular moments, everyday and monumental, in developing a comprehensive portrait of his time—a precise but inclusive vision of Black life in the twentieth-century.

‘Born Black’ Book

Gordon Parks photograph of Muhammad Ali signing autographs for a group of kids.
Untitled, Miami, Florida, 1970, archival pigment print. 20 x 24 inches (print), 14 1/2 x 21 3/4 (image size), 25 1/4 x 32 1/8 x 1 3/4 (Framed). Edition 2 of 10. Inventory #GP70.003.2. Credit: Photograph by Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

This spring, Steidl, in partnership with The Gordon Parks Foundation, will release an expanded edition of “Born Black” that illuminates Parks’s vision for the book and offers deeper insight into the nine series within it through additional images, related manuscripts, and scholarly essays.

Reflecting on the book’s enduring legacy, Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation shares, “Born Black, the first book to unite Parks’s writing and photographs, illustrates his thorough effort to platform first-person narratives of Black lives and experiences across America at a time of unequivocal revolution. We are also pleased to include two new essays by renowned critics Jelani Cobb and Nicole R. Fleetwood.”

About Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (b.1912, Fort Scott, KS; d. 2006, New York, NY) was a seminal photographer and celebrated composer, author, and filmmaker. As a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, his work documents many of the most important aspects of American culture with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life.

Born into poverty and segregation, Parks was first drawn to photography when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine. He purchased a camera at a pawn shop and found a job taking fashion photographs for a local clothing store in St. Paul.

Parks developed his own style, allowing him to break the color line in professional photography while creating remarkably expressive images that consistently explore the social and economic impact of racism. Awarded the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942, Parks chose to work with Roy Stryker and the FSA, around which time he created American Gothic—one of his most iconic images and one of the hallmark images of the twentieth century.

His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader solidified his position as the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine—where he worked for two decades. His photographs captured the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America, and have become defining images of their era. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate and documentarian.

About The Gordon Parks Foundation

The Gordon Parks Foundation supports and produces artistic and educational initiatives that advance the legacy and vision of Gordon Parks—recognized as the most significant American photographer of the twentieth century, as well as a writer, musician, and filmmaker who used the arts to further “the common search for a better life and a better world.”

The Foundation was co-founded in 2006 by Parks with his longtime friend and editor at Life magazine, Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., to preserve his creative work and support the next generation of artists advancing social justice. Through exhibitions, publications, and public programs, organized in collaboration with institutions internationally and at its exhibition space in Pleasantville, New York, the Foundation provides access to, and supports expanded understanding of, Gordon Parks’s work and contributions to artists, scholars, students, and the public.

Its archive houses Parks’s photographs, negatives, contact sheets, publications, and a selection of ephemera related to his work in photography, film, music, and writing. The archive also includes collections by related artists. Drawing inspiration from the pivotal role a fellowship played in the development of Parks’s early career, the Foundation’s educational and grant-making initiatives are core to its mission and year-round activities.

Through fellowships, prizes, and scholarships, the Foundation provides vital support to artists, writers, and students—current and future generations of creatives whose work furthers his legacy. These initiatives are made possible through The Gordon Parks Arts and Social Justice Fund, established by the Foundation in 2019.

About Jack Shainman Gallery

Jack Shainman Gallery has been dedicated from its inception to championing artists who have achieved mastery of their creative disciplines and are among the most compelling and influential contributors to culture today. For nearly four decades, the Gallery has earned a reputation for introducing international artists to American audiences, and for developing young and mid-career artists, who have gone on to gain worldwide acclaim.

The gallery has presented the first New York exhibitions of artists Nick Cave, Hayv Kahraman, Meleko Mokgosi, Richard Mosse, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hank Willis Thomas, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among many others. Today, Jack Shainman Gallery is celebrated for its multicultural roster of emerging and established artists and estates who engage in the social and cultural issues of their time.

The Gallery was founded in 1984 in Washington, D.C. by Jack Shainman and Claude Simard (1956-2014). Soon after opening, the Gallery relocated to New York City, first in the East Village before moving to Soho and finally, in 1997, to its current location at 513 West 20th Street in Chelsea.

In 2013, the Gallery opened an additional exhibition space known as The School, a converted 30,000 square foot schoolhouse in Kinderhook, NY. The gallery’s flagship location in Tribeca at 46 Lafayette Street is exhibiting a special presentation of Richard Mosse, Broken Spectre, through March 16, and will subsequently reopen to the public in Fall 2024.

No Comments Yet.