He was the youngest of his father’s 15 children in Fort Scott, Kan. He wrote in his high school yearbook that he wanted to be “a general or a Jazz Sheik.”
Gordon Parks fell short of those goals, but in the process of failing, he became a poet, novelist and memoirist; the inventor of a new genre of film; a pianist, composer and librettist; and one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. How did this happen?
If you love an artist’s mature work, his or her early work is almost always riveting. The drama is innate: How did it come to be? What were the breakthroughs? Who and what helped? What explains it?
“Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” at the National Gallery of Art, sets out to answer these questions. But just as Parks himself got diverted on his way to becoming a “Jazz Sheik,” the curator, Philip Brookman, gets waylaid, and instead of rooting around in juvenilia, finds himself presenting a show with the force and cogency of a full-blown retrospective.
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Parks, happily, comes out of it as inexplicable as ever. You want to see the struggle, the gauche experiments, the lurching missteps. But Parks was taking good photographs virtually from the get-go. In everything he did — fashion, portraiture, street photography, even corporate propaganda — you feel the hum of a visual intelligence that feels innate, like perfect pitch.
Take his picture of a young black boy in Washington, D.C., standing on crutches. The boy has one leg. (The other, according to the title, was cut off by a streetcar). We see him from behind. He appears to be looking across the street to two girls who, sitting on the steps in front of their door, stare back at him.
This picture was taken in 1941. What makes it special is, in one sense, what makes any photograph special: the light, the point of view. The boy is outside in bright sunlight; the camera inside, in a dark, unadorned hallway. This conceit immediately puts us in the anxious position of someone in the boy’s family — his mother, perhaps — watching her boy venture out into the world, crippled. What will others make of him? How will he manage? The girls across the street hold answers, but their faces are impassive, their bodies perched like question marks.
Parks gets all this across with tact, timing and a withholding of histrionics that are the essence of human empathy. You know it immediately. You are dealing with an incredible artist.
Raised in Kansas, Parks was imbued early on with the confidence that comes from a mother who believed in him. Her love was armor, of a sort, against the constant denigration he endured outside his home. In a 1963 Life magazine article, he remembered being called racist names that aroused anger and humiliation: “I was stoned and beaten. The indignities came so often that I soon began to accept them as normal. But I always fought back.”
Parks had a sense of the camera’s potential as a tool of social justice from early on. The same year he took the photograph of the crippled boy, Richard Wright’s “12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States” was published, and the book, said Parks, became his “bible.” (The exhibit’s title, “The New Tide,” comes from Wright’s book.)
He worked first as a fashion and portrait photographer, then as a documentary photographer. He worked for the government and Standard Oil during World War II and in its aftermath, for Vogue, and finally as a staff photographer for Life magazine, which he joined in 1949, the first African-American in that role.
The inside-to-outside dynamic that powers the picture of the crippled boy appears again in August 1943, in the astonishing “Boys Looking in Car Window, Harlem.” Parks and his camera — and by extension we, the viewers — are right there inside the car as a gaggle of boys press up against the window. The window is about a quarter open and seems to underline the deep expressiveness of the six taller boys: one squinting, one smiling, three with eyes dreamily closed in the press, and one — the picture’s emotional focus — with an expression of the most heart-rending, plaintive concern on his face.
Photographs are questions. What happened before? What happened next? Parks’ 1949 photo of a woman at a roulette table in Puerto Rico dramatizes the stakes: The wheel spins. The woman’s mature face (what brought her here?), mouth set in a frown, awaits the results. In a way she is beautiful. Aren’t we all waiting to know what happens next?
Parks took so many indelible images from this decade alone, which is why the show feels so full-throated and complete. The pictures of African-Americans living hardscrabble lives in Harlem and the District of Columbia; the famous series on the life of Ella Watson, a government cleaning woman; the heroic images of the African-American fighter pilots William Walker and George Knox; the farmers in Maine, the fisherman in Gloucester, Mass., the drugstore “cowboys” in Canada, the tenement dwellers in Chicago; and, of course, the legendary assignments (Ingrid Bergman on Stromboli! Models wearing dresses by Dior and Schiaparelli in Paris!) and photo essays for Life, none more remarkable than the one on the young, photogenic gang member Red Jackson.
Parks is great. No need to go on. Just go. Just look. Just marvel.
“Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” runs through Feb. 18 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. See nga.gov.