The Contours of Black American Life, According to Gordon Parks

Spread across Jack Shainman’s Chelsea locations, Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole gathers photographs by the lifelong chronicler of Black American experiences — both familiar and rarely seen. Parks captured the contours of Black American life in the mid- to late 20th century: community, joy, exclusion, racist violence, and uprising. Contemplating these strikingly familiar photographs in 2021 underlines the unfinished state of racial justice  — reminding us that the past is not yet behind us. 

Gordon Parks, “Watering Hole, Fort Scott, Kansas” (1963), archival pigment print, 24 x 20 inches (print)

At the 20th Street location, one eminent photograph is “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956), in which an elegantly dressed woman and young girl stand underneath a “colored entrance” sign, indicating the segregated terrain of the city in the era of Jim Crow. Parks photographed women and children conducting other quotidian tasks such as drinking from a “colored” water fountain, gazing across the fence at public parks they could not access, and window shopping amid white mannequins. In these visual narratives of Black people traversing unequal public spaces, the scene is set for the major political upheavals that would come. A 1947 photograph of a doll test being administered to a Black child foreshadows the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which would rule segregation in public schools unconstitutional. “Watering Hole, Fort Scott, Kansas” (1963) and “Untitled, Harlem, New York” (1948) portray Black people taking pleasure in water — swimming in a lake and cooling off with an open fire hydrant — offering joyful alternatives to prevalent images of segregated drinking fountains and police use of water hoses as a weapon against Civil Rights protestors. 

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At the 24th Street location, photographs of Civil Rights demonstrations abound alongside portraits of political icons including Malcom X, Ethel Muhammad Sharrieff, and Martin Luther King Jr. While the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is often imagined as a one-time event that ended before the 21st century, viewing Parks’s photographs in 2021 after a series of recent uprisings against police brutality tells a different story. A 1963 protest sign asserts that “Police Brutality Must Go,” echoing the contemporary political climate, in which the excessive use of force against Black people remains routine.  The resonance of hands raised in the air is stark; try comparing Parks’s documentation with the “hands up, don’t shoot” protests after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, for example.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York” (1963), gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 inches (print)

In an introductory wall text that reflects on these political parallels, Jelani Cobb writes, “There is nothing in Parks’ body of work that includes the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but it didn’t need to. He’d already shown that they do, minute after minute, across the void from his time to our own.” Beyond merely proving the longue durée of anti-Black racism, these graceful and persevering photographs honor and memorialize the ongoing Black-American freedom struggle.

Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole continues through February 20 at Jack Shainman (513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan, respectively.)


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