Gordon Parks exhibits recall the South’s segregation era

Two galleries observe late photographer’s centennial birthday with similar shows

The wooden school room in the photograph could well have been built in the 1800s, but given the context there is nothing quaint about it.

The desks seem as old as the threadbare room. A single light bulb dangles from a cord in the ceiling. The only source of heat in the cavernous room is a pot belly stove. “May” is scribbled across the chalkboard, but looking at the room you can imagine how cold it must have been for the students in winter, icy wind whistling up through the floorboard cracks.

In 1956, on an assignment for Life magazine, photographer Gordon Parks set off across the Deep South to document the lives of African Americans living under racial segregation.

He trained his lens not on conflagrations or famous leaders but on subtle violence rendered every day through Jim Crow laws: ones that kept drinking fountains separate for blacks and whites; roads in black neighborhoods unpaved; nice playgrounds off limits to black children; rough one-room school houses more suited to the age of President Lincoln than Eisenhower.

More than two dozen of the color photographs ran in the magazine in September 1956, though Parks shot more than 200 images. A dozen of those 200 images constitute the new show, “Gordon Parks: The Segregation Portfolio,” running now through early February in two Atlanta galleries, the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in southwest Atlanta and Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead. The portfolio will begin a three-year European tour in Milan in April as part of a larger retrospective of Parks’ work.

The current show was developed by the Gordon Parks Foundation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Parks’ birth, Nov. 30. The show is one of several centennial exhibitions and events across the country. Parks, perhaps one of the most accomplished and important photographers to document the African American experience during the 20th century, died in 2006 at age 93.

A novelist, composer, screenwriter and filmmaker, whose best-known film was the 1971 original version of “Shaft,” Parks was nothing if not an adroit storyteller. He shot fashion and landscapes, documented the plight of poor children in Brazil. And his photo essay for Life magazine on actress Ingrid Bergman at the nadir of her career in 1949 was rendered with an intelligence, sensitivity and intimacy rarely seen in celebrity photography.

A native of Kansas and reared in St. Paul, Minn., Parks brought those same sensibilities to his photographs of the American civil rights movement. He would often say his camera was his choice of weapon to fight injustice. So, in the “Segregation Portfolio,” there are no images of police dogs attacking protesters or fire hoses trained on marchers. In fact, one of the most powerful images in the series is of Jo Ann Thornton Wilson and her niece, Shirley Anne Kirksey. They wait outside what looks like a movie theater in Mobile, Ala., each dressed in fluffy pastel dresses of the period, every hair in place. Their gaze is fixed across the street as if they are waiting for another member of their party to cross the street and join them. But their dignity is affronted by a glaring read neon sign above them that reads: “Colored Entrance.”

“Every time I look at that photo it makes me cry,” said Maurice Berger, a curator of “Gordon Parks: 100 Years,” a public art project at the International Center of Photography in New York City.

“You know that every time this woman entered downtown she put on her very best, down to her pumps and purse, to steel herself against what might happen to her,” said Berger, who is a research professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a contributor to a five-volume collection of Parks’ work to be published this month by Steidl. “She wants to be the full woman she knows she is, but her humanity is under assault. So this is about a sense of nuance when you look at these pictures.”

What also distinguishes the photos, apart from their subtlety in technique, is that they’re rendered in color, rather than black and white.

“Color was not the language of documentary photography at the time, and even though some of these photos have been reproduced in black and white, they are not known in color,” said Paul Roth, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Roth worked with Parks for a show in 1997 that included some images from the larger segregation series, but most of the photographs were black and white. Roth didn’t realize that the entire portfolio originally had been shot with color film. In fact, it wasn’t until after the photographer’s death that a Parks’ foundation researcher found the bulk of transparencies and negatives from the Life shoot among Parks’ belongings, said Marisa Cardinale, a consultant with the foundation.

The text that accompanied Parks’ photographs in the original Life story did not reveal the peril the photographer faced while he traveled through the South. In his 2005 memoir “A Hungry Heart,” Parks devotes a chapter to the events, which included being followed by suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan and an attempt by the White Citizens Council to steal his film.

“Racial tension is so thick down here you can cut it with a knife,” Parks wrote in the book.

The tension remains a specter in the images, its energy there but never embodied in actual conflict between white and black. Instead it lurks, as in the picture of a family waiting in line to use a “colored” drinking fountain, while the one labeled “white only” has no wait, or in the photograph of a roadside marquee advertising lots for “coloreds” for sale.

“He was direct and straight forward in his depiction of real people, living real lives through nearly impossible circumstances,” Roth said. “When he told a story, he avoided tricks of light and shadow because he saw himself as an ambassador to the reader. So sometimes a subject looks directly at the camera, it creates a solemn, real connection between the subject and the viewer.”

Jackson Fine Art, which has shown Parks’ work before and had a long relationship with the artist, has paired the “Segregation Portfolio” with the work of Bruce Davidson, who also depicted the civil rights movement in a landmark 1960s series. Jackson owner Anna Walker Skillman chose Davidson’s black-and-white renderings of Central Park and Paris. Dawkins shows the same 12 photographs from Parks’ “Segregation” series and includes nine of Parks’ iconic black-and-white images, including “American Gothic,” Muhammad Ali in training and the hustle and bustle of Harlem. All of these combine to show “this country on the verge of great change,” said Dawkins.

Ultimately, Berger said, what the segregation pictures serve to do is reorient our thinking about what constitutes a civil rights photograph.

“What he was saying to the readers of Life in 1956 and beyond was these families are no different from you, but they are suffering under some of the worst oppression known to the world,” he said.

Earlier this year, because of his scholarship on Parks, Berger was contacted by a relative of Jo Ann Thornton Wilson, the woman in the pretty dress under the marquee. Berger said he is scheduled to meet with the man in January to hear how far the Thornton descendants have come since Parks’ told their story of exclusion in the hope that it would help them achieve equality.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.