Archive for Sunday, April 25, 1993

Gordon parks at Spencer Museum

April 25, 1993


Gordon Parks is revealed as a photographer with two agendas in an exhibit of his photos spanning several decades at the Helen Spencer Foresman Museum of Art.

On one hand, Parks was a consummate professional who could shoot fashion spreads as expertly as photographs capturing the victims of the Great Depression.

On the other hand, he documented the lives of black Americans in a positive and heroic light years ahead of its time.

``So much of what we have in the way of minority photographs are taken by the majority, which tend to be `victim' photographs,'' said John Pultz, the Spencer's curator of photography.

``His work, I think, is different,'' Pultz said. ``He offers a chance to see blacks as heroes, not as people whose lives have been ruined by poverty, drugs or racism.''

TWENTY-THREE of Parks' finest photographs are on display at the museum until May 16. The exhibit was planned in conjunction with Parks' visit to Lawrence Saturday for a lecture on creativity.

The photos came courtesy of a Wichita State University retrospective on Parks.

``In some ways, the photos are simply out of good photojournalism,'' Pultz said. ``At their very best, the photos are very bold and graphically powerful.''

Parks, a modern-day renaissance man and native of Fort Scott, may be best known as the author of the best-selling autobiography ``The Learning Tree,'' and director of the movie ``Shaft.'' The octogenarian also is a poet and composer.

His career in the arts began in photography. In the 1930s, he joined a group of photographers documenting the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration.

THE KU exhibit touches on his output for the FSA during the '30s, for Life magazine in the 1940s, and as a fashion photographer in the 1950s. It also features works he shot as the first photographer given access inside America's black Muslim community, Pultz said.

``I think a large amount of his work reflects being black in America -- his being able to photograph the black Muslim community, for example,'' Pultz said.

Many of Park's photographs in the exhibit show blacks in postures of power. Pultz has included in the exhibit Park's 1963 photo, ``Malcolm X Selling Newspapers.''

In the photo, the black leader grips a newspaper with the headline ``Seven Unarmed Negroes Shot In Cold Blood By Los Angeles Police.'' His strident expression and strong grip on the paper speak volumes about his efforts to battle racism.

In ``Muhammad Ali after the Henry Cooper Fight in London, England, 1966,'' the frame is dominated by the fighter's face, drenched in sweat. The steely look in Ali's eyes communicates his personal strength and potent charisma.

PERHAPS Parks' best known photograph,``American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942,'' also is on display.

The photo of a black cleaning woman holding a broom and a mop apes the composition of Grant Wood's painting ``American Gothic.''

The American flag in the background adds a powerful graphic element and strong whiff of irony to the picture. Still, the woman is not portrayed as a victim.

``I guess it's sort of the dignity that she brings to the photograph,'' Pultz said. ``It 's the iconic quality that he brings to it makes it such a powerful image.''

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