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Gordon Parks

In the Midwest in the 1930s, Gordon Parks was a young railroad porter who would gather magazines that passengers left behind and study the photographs carefully.

He’d focus on images of migrant workers, taken by Farm Security Administration photographers documenting the social and economic plight of Americans during the Depression.

“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” Parks later recalled. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of 15 children, Parks grew up on his family’s farm and then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with an older sister, leaving high school before graduation.

After a variety of jobs he bought a camera in a pawnshop, taught himself how to use it, and by the time he was 30 won a fellowship to work in Washington, D.C., at the Farm Security Administration — the agency whose photographs had inspired him.

During the next three decades he became an eminent photographer, the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine, at a time when it reached millions of readers each week. His first assignment was covering fashion in Paris, but he made his name on more challenging projects, such as the photo essay on a Harlem gang leader in 1948.

Parks’ most powerful images — still vital 60, 70, 80 years later — are among nearly three dozen of his photographs on display at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center under the bold but appropriate title: “A Loaded Camera: Gordon Parks.” It runs through July 3.

These images are drawn from a collection of more than 1,000 20th-century photographs, a gift to the Cantor from the Capital Investment Group Foundation. This exhibit is the last of three showings of works from that collection; earlier shows featured Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, John Gutmann, Helen Levitt and Wright Morris.

The Parks photographs on display (about half of his works in the collection) are mostly somber. They include images from that Harlem gang essay and a devastating portrait 20 years later of a Harlem family enduring what a caption describes as “squalor, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.”

But those aren’t his most famous photographs, which are also on display. A 1942 image of Ella Watson, an office cleaner at the Farm Security Administration where Parks worked, portrays her resolutely flanked by a broom and mop, in front of an American flag. It’s now best known as “American Gothic” for its comparison — and contrast — to Grant Wood’s iconic painting.

Parks’ 1952 “Emerging Man,” collaboration with author Ralph Ellison, depicts a Black man emerging from a manhole on a Harlem street. It was a reversal of an incident in Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man,” which was previewed in Life magazine just before its release.

There are additional dramatic portraits: poet and playwright Langston Hughes (1941); actress Ingrid Bergman, shadowed by three mysterious figures at a movie location on the Italian island of Stromboli (1949); Muhammad Ali, his face glowing with reflected perspiration (1966); Black Panther activists Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in Algeria (1970), the last photo Parks took for Life magazine as he shifted into a filmmaking career.

He became the first African American writer and director of major Hollywood studio films with “The Learning Tree” (1969), which was adapted from his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and “Shaft” (1971). While those aren’t part of the Cantor exhibit, Parks’ earlier, individual photographs reveal a cinematic quality, “unfolding over time,” as the curator of another Parks exhibit once said.

As a Black photographer in a predominantly white field, Parks gained the trust of Life magazine editors as well as his subjects, from 17-year-old gang leader Red Jackson in Harlem to an intense-looking white woman gambling at a Hilton hotel casino in Puerto Rico. That stark portrait, Cantor curator Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell notes, speaks to Parks’ capacity “regardless of his subject’s status or race, to make compelling pictures with curiosity and respect.”

Parks devotes the same care to subjects both famous and unknown. Here is the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, speaking at a rally in Chicago (1963). And here is Lucy Jefferson, a 98-year-old African American friend in Parks’ in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. It’s an evocative portrait (from 1950) of a woman who would have been born before the Civil War, in the era of slavery.

The exhibit “A Loaded Camera” was delayed nearly two years by the pandemic, but Mitchell said COVID separated all of us a little farther from the 20th century —and Parks provides a lens for looking at America in that century.

“He is someone who really forged a visual language, thinking about civil rights in America,” she said in an interview. “He changed how we represent Black life and racial problems.”

Parks’ own story is compelling. As a writer, composer, photographer and filmmaker, he repeatedly “wrecked the barriers” against Black Americans, Mitchell notes. “His story, the subjects he pursued, the way he developed a visually stunning aesthetic— but his images were also incredibly informative. And he cut right to the emotion.”

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