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Gordon Parks' Photos Featured in Centennial Exhibit

By Jeff Mays | July 12, 2012 4:35pm | Updated on July 13, 2012 9:20am
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture  has launched an exhibit titled
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has launched an exhibit titled "Gordon Parks: 100 Moments" to celebrate the artist's centennial.
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Anthony Barboza

HARLEM — Leslie Parks, daughter of famed photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, didn't realize it was the centennial of the late artist's birth until the calls started rolling in for retrospectives and tributes to his work a few months ago.

"It's interesting to see how important he was to people. For me, he was my father," said Leslie Parks.

She was reminded of her father's importance Wednesday as hundreds of people came out to celebrate an exhibit of Gordon Parks' at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture titled "Gordon Parks: 100 Moments."

The exhibit, which features 100 photos, some of them never before published, examines Parks' work in the 1940s when he photographed the everyday lives of African-Americans in Harlem and Washington, D.C. during a time of tremendous change for blacks.

A photo of kids in Harlem.
A photo of kids in Harlem.
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Gordon Parks

It was in Washington, D.C. where Parks produced one of his most famous photographs, "American Gothic, Washington, D.C."

Based on the Grant Wood painting "American Gothic," it shows Ella Watson, a cleaning woman for the Farm Security Administration, holding a broom with a mop in the background and an American flag draped above. Parks said he was inspired to produce the image after experiencing virulent racism in the nation's capitol.

Parks, who died in 2006 at the age of 93, took photos for magazines such as Life and Vogue and went on to write and direct films, including his autobiographical novel "The Learning Tree" and the blaxploitation classic "Shaft."

Schomburg director Khalil Gibran Muhammad said Gordon Parks' photos from the 1940s captured all aspects of what it was like to be an African-American at the time, including the struggle for dignity against the sting of racism while acknowledging regular aspects of life such as kids playing.

"The photos serve as a stunning documentation and are emblematic of the everyday joys and sorrows of people in the 1940s. He captured what it was like to be an everyday citizen," said Muhammad.

From the photos of a boy selling vegetables from the back of a truck in Harlem in 1942, to a woman hanging her head out of a Harlem brownstone with her dog perched nearby, or a Washington, D.C. woman cooking for her children in the one room home she shared with them, the photos show glimpses of African-American life that weren't often depicted at the time.

"It speaks to our ability to survive," said Muhammad.

Curator Deborah Willis, chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, said Gordon Parks touched many through his work and life.

"Everyone I met over the years has a story about Gordon," said Willis.

"I wanted to share the Harlem experience," said Willis.

The exhibit will run through Dec. 1.

Leslie Parks said she thinks about her father often and gets joy from seeing others discover his work.

"I miss him every day," she said.

Also on display is an exhibit of photos by Moneta Sleet, Jr., the first African-American man to win a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband, slain civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located at 515 Lenox Avenue at 135th Street in Harlem.