Gordon Parks: Escaping the “Mecca of Bigotry”

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by Anna Buckley

At the age of fifteen, Gordon Parks left his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. When he returned 23 years later, to photograph the impact of school segregation for LIFE, all but one of his elementary school classmates remained. Thus began Parks’ journey to chart the 11 courses of his former friends’ lives, like veins of a river delta fanning out from the place which Parks called “the mecca of bigotry.”

Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott is showing at the Museum of Fine Arts until September 13. The images were largely unknown prior to curator Karen Haas’ efforts to create an exhibition. For reasons still unknown the images were never published.

When walking into the exhibit nestled within the Americas Wing, what strikes the viewer first is the intimacy: the closeness of the space, the familiarity created by the frontal, inquisitive angles Parks chose, the openness the people in the images seem to offer the viewer.

This sincerity is undoubtedly a result of Parks’ relationship to each of the people he tracked down. Having known all of his subjects in his childhood, Parks was photographing not just classmates but friends and fellow survivors of the harsh, segregated world of Fort Scott. This mutual trust between artist and subject results in both tender and raw images that depict multiple and varying truths, from that of struggle to that of endurance.

An iconic image from the collection is of a man and wife, dressed in Sunday best, walking arm in arm down the street. This photograph illustrates the various notes of inwardness Parks' captured with this collection. Though stiff and stoic at first sight, the subjects both hold a muted softness in their expression, as though their guard had been let down just before or just after the snap of the shutter. The man holds his bible firmly, his hat tilted ever so slightly, while the woman hooks her arm limply through his, her eyes seeming to communicate a hardened, steadfast fortitude developed over time—the passing of which is evidenced by soft wrinkles in her brow.

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Not secondary to the sense of honesty exhibited in Parks' photography is his mastery of lighting, timing, and framing. In one of his untitled images from Fort Scott, a young man balances a pool stick strategically in his left hand, aimed at a ball. His profile is illuminated by an overhead lamp hanging above and to the left of his head. The positioning of the young man's fingers, specifically the straight fourth finger extended across the top of the pool table, lends the moment a sense of poised tension. In the background, a woman's dark silhouette fills the frame of the open doorway that illuminates the dark pool hall. This interplay of light and dark creates a stunning scene, enhanced by Parks' placement of subjects in the frame, such as that of a man’s arm resting on the other side of the table, the rest of his body hidden from view.

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One of the most arresting images is Untitled, Columbus, Ohio (1950). It is a photograph of Donald Beatty, described as one of Parks’ most promising classmates, who had moved to Columbus, Ohio and was a supervisor at a state agency. He is pictured lounging on his front porch, pipe in mouth, his son poised on the back of a tricycle behind his father. In the background sits his wife, head bowed, sewing. Beatty appears entirely at ease, looking as though Parks captured him deep in thought. A pair of hedge clippers lay behind his elbow, open. Both father and son are looking out to the street, and the repetition of their body language creates a visually moving parallel between father and son, and between one generation and the next.

Perhaps it’s the palpable sense of ease, or suburban sleepiness, that draws the viewer to the image. It is a glimpse into the lives of strangers, who become immediately humanized and familiar, with Parks lending this perspective to the viewer through his relationship with the families. But what haunts one most about this image is that merely a year later, that boy was no longer alive. A fact-checker for LIFE checked in with the family a year later and wrote, with no elucidation to soften the blow, “Aside from the death of their son, nothing much has happened to them.”

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Image Credit: Images courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Anna Buckley is an editorial intern for New Venture Media Group and a senior writing, literature, and publishing major at Emerson College


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