THE BEAUTY OF BLACK &WHITE IN GORDON PARKS’ PHOTOGRAPHY: A STORYTELLER OF THE AMERICAN DUOTONE SOCIETY IN THE 1940S WHO DREAMED TO CHANGE THE WORLD THROUGH THE LENS OF A CAMERA.
“Beauty is, where beauty is…could be on a mountainside, could be a beautiful woman, could be a leopard in the jungle.” (Gordon Parks)
Beauty has always been a pursuit for Gordon Parks, an endless one.
From his fashion photography with Life magazine to his creative activism in the documentation of African-American life during the Civil Right era, this iconic pioneer of American photography used his unblemished eye to document and capture beauty in the moment, and to transform everyday reality into art. Parks was one of the few photographers of his era to help the viewer to empathize and to ennoble the essence of the beauty trough contrasts, coincidences and contradictions of African-American and European working class life, poetically capturing the daily subtle moments in the churches, in the streets or at the decks. The content of his work reveals his constant transformation of his narration of the humanity. Interested in individual and isolable transitory moments as well as a narrative structure for his captures, giving so to singular events a temporal expansion developing a hybrid of static and moving images; he promoted the concept of the image sequence as an expression of human behavior or societal conditions.
Parks, one of LIFE’s best known and most admired photographers, was born into poverty in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of 15 children. He attended a segregated elementary school, where black students weren’t permitted to play sports or engage in extracurricular activities.
Self-taught photographer, he bought his first camera from a pawn shop, and began taking photos, originally specializing in fashion-centric portraits of African American women, focusing his works on the pursuit of the idea of “framing beauty” in a complex society.
Joined the staff at Life magazine, in 1948, Gordon Parks during this period captured his most iconic images of the civil rights movement, speaking so to the infuriating realities of the struggles of black daily life through a lens that white readers would view as “objective” and non-threatening. Gordon wanted to take a stand against the racism he observed and the only way he knew was through his camera.
Gifted with an unfailing eye for beauty and composition, he incorporated in his “civil” photography also a pioneering development in the fashion industry photography, writing once again new rules. Experimenting with movement and gesture, he caught models in motion allowing the fabrics to flow dramatically out of the frame. He challenged the genre by inventing ways to enrich our ideas about style including objects, group poses and streetscapes, selling not just clothing but a lifestyle too for emerging independent woman. Placing the models in the studio and on location using realistic scenes and the city as backdrops as Chicago, Paris and New York, Parks was able to capture casual moments with a sense of intimacy and awareness. The viewer imagined that exact lapse of a frame in a lifetime, which was catch dramatically, as if part of a narrative.
Almost 60 years later, Parks’ photographs are as relevant as ever.
He was a man of many pursuits—photographer, novelist, poet, memoirist, filmmaker, composer. Some of his images live on because they delight the eye with their beauty, others endure because of the way that they touched the hearts and minds of millions of LIFE’s readers and changed, if only just a little, the course of American history.
Ten years later the death of the American photographer, C/0 Berlin pays tribute to his career through an exhibition entitled I AM YOU, until the end of 2016.
Text by Nola Granulo