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Photography Review

The uncommon power of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks’s “Doll Test”
Gordon Parks’s “Doll Test”(Melissa Blackall, Courtesy of Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Gordon Parks Foundation)

CAMBRIDGE

The water-slicked hand clawing up from beneath the waves feels urgent, panicked. Not very Gordon Parks, but I think that’s the point. The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard University is hosting a key sampling of the famed African-American photojournalist’s work from the collection of Kasseem Dean and Alicia Keys — dozens of pictures shot for Life and Vogue magazines, ranging from Harlem gangs and Malcolm X to fashion to celebrity portraits. But this is the one that gets me.

I’ve seen Parks’s work before, and often. I’ve been struck by his humanity, his precision, the way his eye could shift from gaudy drama to intimate, stolen moments. But I’ve never seen this. Parks was a journalist, a storyteller. That meant his pictures were most often explicit. This one isn’t. It’s an image of abstract terror, a blank void of story filled in by raw emotion. I can’t get it out my head. That’s what a picture of uncommon power does.

Curator Maurice Berger leverages its rawness, its strangeness here. On the facing wall is an array of Parks’s greatest hits — black and white, of course: “Doll Test” (1947), an African-American child puzzling over two dolls, one black, one white; a shadowy alley filled with dangling laundry; a black man emerging from a manhole (“The Invisible Man,” 1962); “Invisible Man Retreat” (1952), shot for a Life piece on Ralph Ellison’s novel of the marginal world of black American life.

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The hand is grainy and moody, in muted color. Alongside, it has kin: Long fingers dangling a cigarette, draped through a window at dusk; a silhouette in hot light, clasping a gun; a cop blacked out, from behind, by the glare of Times Square. Together, they’re a counterpoint to the popular Parks oeuvre — poetic departures, dark haikus in a master storyteller’s narrative catalog.

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Parks started working for Vogue magazine in the 1940s, shooting ladies in evening gowns. He moved quickly to Life, on the strength of his first photo essay in 1948, on black gang violence in Harlem. He would be the first African-American staff photographer in the magazine’s history, and a vital conduit to the racial tumult of American life of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Remember, Life was big in a way no publication today can even approach. At its peak in the late 1960s, its circulation neared 9 million; everyone read it, from tidily groomed suburbs to the densest of urban cores. When Parks published, the country saw.

His work in the studio could make his street photography feel alarmingly crisp, almost theatrical. That’s what makes these loose images, less stories than hints and whispers, so jarring. They cast what comes next in unfamiliar light. The show draws from Parks’s most celebrated series: Flavio, the boy he helped rescue, temporarily, from the slums of Rio de Janeiro while on assignment for Life; the Fontenelles, the Harlem family in the late 1960s on whom he focused for a series on black poverty in New York; Malcolm X, with whom he negotiated a series on the rising Black Muslim movement he led; the full-color series on 1950s Alabama focusing on racial segregation, which Parks knew well, growing up in the divided town of Fort Scott, Kan.

“Malcolm X Holding Up Black Muslim Newspaper”
“Malcolm X Holding Up Black Muslim Newspaper”(Melissa Blackall, Courtesy of Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art)

There’s a smattering of celebrity photos — an absolute knockout portrait of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti; Langston Hughes, looking sculpted and magnificent in hard-carved light. Berger subverts the glamour with canny insertions: Malcolm X, holding a newspaper front page of seven black men gunned down in Los Angeles, and a sullen, stolen shot of Red Jackson, a Harlem gang leader, who appeared in his 1948 Life series — his first for the magazine, and the first, ever, by a black photographer.

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The show works as a Parks sampler, with snips and bits of a career built on depth and purpose, though I’ve heard people call his work cloying, or showy. That’s not entirely unfair, but remember the context. Parks was shooting for the world’s biggest magazine. And he was still constrained by page count. There was no slow build, no prolonged narrative arc. Every picture had to have impact, in that quick-turnaround photo-journalistic way.

“Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956) by Gordon Parks.
“Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956) by Gordon Parks. (Melissa Blackall, Courtesy of Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Gordon Parks Foundation)

That meant, sometimes, that his pictures could be emotionally explicit often to the point of feeling stagey. The forlorn frown of a young black girl in his Alabama series, chin propped on the back of a lawn chair, feels a little too camera-ready; a group of black children with their fingers hooked in the chain link looking at a forbidden playground beyond has the whiff of propaganda.

But, still. Parks was always on the side of righteousness, using the pages of Life to bring the ugly truth of racial division to the comfortable bedroom communities of middle America. He told a critical story — the story that defines, and continues to define, the country — in a way that could be widely absorbed. Polished up as it was, it gave Parks reach. He put stories where they would be seen, with no turning away.

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An untitled work by Gordon Parks
An untitled work by Gordon Parks(Melissa Blackall, Courtesy of Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Gordon Parks Foundation)

And then, that hand, which is none of those things. It’s a prompt: Your story here. We all have them, dark imaginings, nightmares dragging at our minds. But even standing uncharacteristically so far back, here’s the story I think Parks wanted to tell.

When he was 11, three white bullies dragged him to the bank of the Marmaton River and threw him in. “Swim, black boy, or die!” they said as he sunk into the current. He couldn’t, but beneath the surface he clawed his way to shore and survived. For all the stories Parks told, his own was the nuclear core that powered him forward. He fought from the beginning, and to the end. With their dignity and grace, and occasional terror, his pictures carry his story forward, and with it, the story of a country still radically at odds with itself.

GORDON PARKS: SELECTIONS FROM THE DEAN COLLECTION

At Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, through July 19. 617-496-5777, www.coopergallery.fas.harvard.edu


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte