The story of Gordon Parks’s entrance into the world of professional photography is as exceptional as the prolific career that ensued. Before he would go on to realize his many pioneering achievements—as a film director, staff photographer at Life Magazine and Vogue, the first editorial director of Essence magazine, and author of numerous memoirs, among others—a 25-year old Gordon Parks walked into Frank Murphy’s Women’s Clothing Store in St. Paul, Minnesota, seeking his first photography assignment, armed with far more confidence than experience.
Though Mr. Murphy quickly turned him away, his wife asked Parks back the next day to shoot their current window display. “Later I asked her why she took a chance on me, and she said she had just had an argument with Frank and was trying to get under his skin,” Parks has recalled. But the young photographer realized that he lacked the necessary equipment, so he called in sick the next day and used the extra time to buy a better camera, a set of lights, and film. After a seemingly smooth shoot the following day, Parks developed the three rolls of film he had taken and came to an alarming realization: only one of the images was usable, all the rest had been double-exposed.
That single image was enough. His work would be exhibited in the Murphy’s front window, a launchpad for more assignments in publications like Vogue and for increasingly renowned designers. Judging from the prints currently on view at Robert Klein Gallery in “Gordon Parks: Model Citizen,” the first solo exhibition dedicated to Parks’ fashion photography, Parks had an impeccable eye, which was undeniable even early on. For those who know Parks’s socially driven photo essays, it might seem strange that he got his start in the glamourous world of fashion, but the two focuses ran parallel for much of his career. “Once, crime and fashion was served to me on the same day,” he once explained. “The color of a Dior gown I photographed one afternoon turned out to be the same color as the blood of a murdered gang member I had photographed earlier that morning up in Harlem.” For him, the two pursuits were, in different ways, modes of bearing witness.
The exhibition brings together rare prints spanning 1934 through 1965, highlighting Parks’s ability to portray a woman’s interior world. Much of the fashion photography being shot at the time was done in studios, resulting in rigid and highly choreographed images, but Parks was one of the first photographers who preferred to shoot his models in real settings, their dramatic yet fluid gestures animating the clothes they wore. He didn’t necessarily focus on showcasing the clothes, but rather on giving a sense of the stories women could live out in them. Often, he photographed models through one or multiple apertures—an open window or a keyhole, for example—imbuing the images with a sense of voyeurism.This compositional device amplifies the sense of fantasy latent in these images; as we furtively glimpse these frozen moments, we wonder about the meaning of style, and how it might rewrite our own narratives.
“Gordon Parks: Model Citizen” is on view at Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, Sep. 26 – Oct. 31, 2015.