The National Gallery of Art has acquired one of Gordon Parks’s (1912–2006) earliest and most important pictures, Self-Portrait (1941). One of two known existing vintage prints of this photograph, it was given to fellow artist Charles White (1918–1979) in 1942 and is inscribed in white ink, “To my good friend and fine artist, best wishes Gordon Parks.” The print remained in White’s home for the rest of his life and was passed down to his daughter, Jessica White (from whom this print was acquired) because of her longtime affinity for Parks and his work.
“The National Gallery has one of the most extensive research collections of Parks’s photographs,” Philip Brookman, consulting curator in the department of photographs and curator of Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work, 1940–1950, said. “As one of Parks’s earliest and most important works, this print is a magnificent addition to the National Gallery’s photography holdings because of its history and its importance to the artist and his early collaborators.”
In Self-Portrait, Parks, who was 28-years-old at the time, aligns his features with the open lens of his large-format Speed Graphic, the standard camera for press photographers of the 1930s and 1940s. Carefully bringing together his artistic identity with the instrument of his chosen profession, Parks poses with the same contemplative expression and off-camera gaze he directed so many of his subjects to hold.
After moving with his wife and two children to Chicago in early 1941, Parks obtained access to studio space and a darkroom in the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), the epicenter of Chicago’s African American art scene. In addition to earning a living by taking portraits of the city’s middle- and upper-class African American community, Parks documented SSCAC activities and developed relationships with other artists—many of whom taught at the center, such as Eldzier Cortor and Margaret Taylor Burroughs. It was through SSCAC that Parks met White, who encouraged him to take his camera onto the streets to document the surrounding South Side neighborhood.
Parks’s pose here recalls the prototypical Black photographer appearing in one of White’s earliest murals, and it stands for the pressing need for self-representation in pictures of African American life.