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Photography Review

‘Gordon Parks’ shows mid-century America in black and white

“Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan,” by Gordon Parks.
“Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan,” by Gordon Parks. ((c) The Gordon Parks Foundation)
“Railway Station Entrance, Fort Scott, Kansas.”
“Railway Station Entrance, Fort Scott, Kansas.”(The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) wasn’t the most talented photographer of the 20th century. Instead, he may well have been the most talented at the most things. Parks wrote novels, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, and advocated for civil rights. He directed feature films (most notably, the original “Shaft”). He was a pianist and composer. His compositions included an opera. He wrote the libretto, too. What couldn’t Gordon Parks do? If all that weren’t enough, he had movie-star looks; even his mustache had personality. A great photograph, once seen, is impossible to forget. Gordon Parks was not unlike a great photograph.

Parks’s list of accomplishments becomes all the more remarkable when one realizes how much he had to overcome, as an African-American who grew up in a segregated Kansas town. That town, segregation, and much else besides are the subject of “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott.” It opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday and runs through Sept. 13.

In 1948, Parks had joined Life magazine as its first African-American staff photographer. He was asked two years later to do a photo essay on school segregation. It was an issue of growing importance. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court would declare it unconstitutional in 1954. Segregation wasn’t practiced just in the old Confederacy. That particular board of education was in Topeka, Kan., about 135 miles from Fort Scott. Parks’s proposal to frame the essay in terms of his 11 classmates from his segregated Kansas grade school was prescient as well as autobiographical.

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The 41 black-and-white photographs on display at the MFA testify to Parks’s completing the assignment. It never ran, though. The Korean War broke out around the time of the photo essay’s planned publication date. It was scheduled again a year later. Then Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur. That was that. The news cycle giveth and the news cycle taketh away.

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There the matter stood until the MFA began to put together a book, “Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum Fine Arts, Boston.” (It’s being published this month.) Among the contents is a Parks photograph in the museum’s holdings that shows an African-American couple standing beneath a movie theater marquee. Curator Karen E. Haas sought to find out its history, which led her to the Gordon Parks Foundation, in New York, and Parks’s papers, at Wichita State University, in Kansas. The result of that search is “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott.”

With all due respect to Parks, the show’s most charming element comes courtesy of Haas. In her research, she tracked down yearbook photos for the nine classmates Parks photographed (the two others he failed to find). They’re reproduced on the corresponding wall labels.

Even with its relatively few photographs, the show covers a lot of ground.

It’s a portrayal of small-town life at the middle of the last century: railroad station, ball field, movie theater, pool hall, elementary school, the local dairy, the mailman making his rounds. Fort Scott could be on an MGM backlot – except that MGM backlots were only covertly segregated. Here the segregation is undisguised. Note how the two black children at the ball field are to the side, away from the white spectators. That’s no accident. So “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” also functions – gently, but unmistakably – as social commentary.

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That commentary takes two forms: documenting and directing. The directing manifests itself as a self-conscious emphasis on uplift. Parks shows a couple saying grace at mealtime, a family grouped around a parlor piano, an elderly woman looking so noble in profile that she could be auditioning for the face of a coin. These images are very much in the standard Life hortatory mode, where a muscular manipulativeness meets a no-less-muscular expertise.

The show is an exercise in personal history, of course. “I melted into a welcome that only home can give,” Parks wrote in his notes (which are on display in the gallery). A photograph of a pair of well-used high-button shoes conveys a sense of emotional weight, a sense confirmed by the wall label. The shoes belonged to a widowed neighbor who helped care for Parks when his mother died.

“Untitled (Outside the Liberty Theater).”
“Untitled (Outside the Liberty Theater).” (The Gordon Parks Foundation)

It’s easy to feel Parks’s connection to this place and the people who lived there – or used to. The exhibition might as easily have been called “Away From Fort Scott.” All but one of Parks’s schoolmates had moved elsewhere. They were part of the African-American diaspora that did so much to change America in the last century. Parks went to Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere to photograph his fellows. That couple out for a Sunday stroll (the man’s straw boater almost as impressive as the finny upsweep of the woman’s millinery)? The pleasant-looking street they’re walking down isn’t in Fort Scott. It’s in Detroit. What we’re seeing here, in human terms, is social history encompassing far, far more than a small Kansas town.

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“Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas.”
“Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas.”(The Gordon Parks Foundation)
“Shoes, Fort Scott, Kansas.”
“Shoes, Fort Scott, Kansas.” (The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.