ANDOVER — The obvious thing to say about “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” is that it shows a young man in a hurry. There are some 130 photographs in the exhibition, as well as contact prints, books, vintage magazines, and other ephemera. In both subject and style, the work is vigorously exploratory and various. The show includes portraits, photojournalism, social documentary, photo essays, cityscapes, landscapes, even fashion photography.
Clearly, here was someone on the go as well as on the rise: testing his medium, testing himself, testing American society. Maybe that last one was the most daunting. It couldn’t have been otherwise for a Black artist at that time, let alone one of such talent and ambition.
Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the show runs through April 26 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of Phillips Academy.
Young is a relative term. Parks turned 28 in 1940. He was 25 when he bought his first camera (in a pawnshop). A high school dropout, he’d already worked as a cleaner, bell boy, bus boy, waiter, musician, composer, bandleader, and spent a few months in the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. The wealth of experience he brought to photography was that of a much older man, and that experience of life is evident here almost from the beginning. This isn’t apprentice work, and in a very particular sense. Even when an apprentice with a camera, Parks was no apprentice at life. There’s nothing callow about his picture of a solitary woman on the Staten Island ferry. It’s one old soul recognizing another.
It’s useful to go into Parks’s biography because the vocational pattern would continue, albeit on a much grander level. Few photographers have cut such a broad figure: novelist, memoirist, poet, painter, film director (most famously, the original “Shaft”). Part of that figure he cut was owing to how he looked as well as what he did: that long, sculpted, equine face, and let’s not forget what would become surely the greatest mustache in photographic history. That last detail sounds like a joke or put-down. It’s anything but. Appearance matters, something no one appreciates more than photographers. Appearance is what photography does.
You can see that keen appreciation for appearance in what is likely his most famous photograph, “Washington, D.C. Government charwoman,” from 1942. By then, Parks’s hurry had taken him from the Twin Cities, where he’d been a photojournalist and portrait photographer; to Chicago, where he opened a photo studio and photographed on assignment such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt and the poet Langston Hughes; and then Washington, where he joined the celebrated photographic unit at the government’s Farm Security Administration.
Parks poses Ella Watson in front of an American flag, framing her between mop and broom. The allusion to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” the photograph’s alternate title, is plain to anyone who knows the painting. The layering of visual effects — of appearance — is no less plain, and that’s not even considering how imaginatively yet subtly Parks uses lighting. Really, though, the greatness of the image has less to do with visual technique than humanity. Look at Watson’s eyes. They belong not so much to an old soul as an eternal one. Parks recognizes that and has every other element within the frame defer to those eyes, right down to having Watson look slightly away from the lens. It makes her seem at once modest and self-possessed, intensely individuated and universal.
As early as 1942, Parks was demonstrating a sensibility, if not yet a style. The trying out of styles, of seeking a balance between formal inventiveness and deferring to content, is evident in a photograph he took a month before “Government charwoman.” Visually, “Anacostia, D.C. Frederick Douglass housing project. Mother watching her children as she prepares the evening meal” is nearly as involved as its title: the table, the various kitchen items, and the truly bravura element, the play of picture planes inside and outside the window (and the window acting as a frame within the frame). There’s even textural abundance: the curtains, the doily on the table, the woman’s hair, the busyness of the pattern on her dress. It’s a low-key tour de force. But notice how the woman is looking away. On the one hand, the most important element in the picture is her gaze falling on her children. On the other, that means we can’t see her eyes. An exercise in technique (and social documentary) fails to become something more.
Soon enough, a style would emerge: worldly, a bit showy, humane, morally alert. It’s evident, for example, in the newly published “Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali” (Steidl), with photographs he took of the champion in 1966 and 1970. By then, Parks had become “Gordon Parks,” a name no less than a style.
Life magazine hired Parks in 1949, making him its first Black staff photographer. It sounds strange to say in 2020, but Parks’s greatest achievement during the decade as recorded here is how thoroughly he transcended race. Along with the photographs of Anacostia and Harlem and Black fighter pilots, there he is in Maine and Canada’s Northwest Territories and at Babe Ruth’s funeral and on set with Ingrid Bergman and doing fashion shoots. It’s a tribute to Parks’s artistry that one takes for granted his versatility and range, they seem to come to him so naturally. But the opportunity to exercise them didn’t. We do both him and history a disservice overlooking his achievement in obtaining it. That young man in a hurry had hardly any margin of error for putting a step wrong, and he didn’t.
GORDON PARKS: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through April 26. 978-749-4000, addison.andover.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.