‘Shaft’ Director Gordon Parks’s Art is Not What You Might Expect
Gordon Parks could be described as a man of firsts: the first African-American writer and staff photographer at Life, the first African-American photographer published in Vogue, and the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood film. He is more simply and most fervently remembered, however, as a tireless polymath who excelled at every art form he pursued—and they were plentiful.
After leaving the small, segregated town of Fort Scott Kansas at age 15, Parks took odd jobs throughout the country, working as a busboy, touring as a semi-pro basketball player, and (after purchasing his first camera at a pawnshop in 1938) taking portraits of society women in Chicago. By the mid-1940s, in a whirl of quick ascent and war, Parks’s images regularly edged the pages of Vogue and Life. He became best known for his beautiful, brutally candid photo essays documenting the civil rights movement, segregation, poverty, and gang culture. Parks went on to direct three Hollywood films (including the first two films in the cult classic series Shaft), write four autobiographies, publish numerous books of poetry, and compose several concertos—all ardent expressions of the realities and injustices experienced in America during his long life.
Then, several years before his death in 2006 at age 93, Parks began a quiet coda to his career of iconoclastic achievements. An exhibition of Parks’s late work at Rue Royale Fine Art reveals saturated, highly detailed photolithographs depicting flowers placed on top of watercolor landscapes. They are bold, elegant, and organic—invoking Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings—and seem to represent a place very far from the lands of social injustice and high fashion.
Parks tied his earliest and latest work together fluidly and poetically: “The pictures that have most persistently confronted my camera have been those of crime, racism, and poverty. I was cut through by the jagged edge of all three, yet I remain aware of imagery that lends itself to serenity and beauty and here my camera has searched for nature’s evanescent splendor. Recording them was a matter of devout observance, a sort of metamorphosis for which I called on things dear to me: poetry, music, and the magic of watercolor.” Here, at the end of his life, Parks distilled all of his creative motivations into one calm, straightforward series that emits something like optimism. This feels especially powerful coming from a man who has seen a whole lot of strife.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.
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