New York

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". © Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". © Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Gordon Parks

Jack Shainman Gallery

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". © Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In an untitled photograph from 1978, the model Iman casually rests her elbows on two tall stacks of ancient African artifacts. In another, from 1966, a young Muhammad Ali leans against a stairwell bannister in London, gazing intently toward the upper right-hand corner of the frame. In another still, from 1960, we see Duke Ellington through the television monitors of a recording studio. In 1957, the photographer Gordon Parks made a vivid color portrait of the painter Helen Frankenthaler, vamping for the camera on a drop cloth in her studio. In 1952, he shot the hand of Alexander Calder, reaching from the shadows to adjust one of his mobiles. A year earlier, he photographed Alberto Giacometti at work on his sculptures in his Paris atelier. Two years before that, he captured the eternal sadness of Ingrid Bergman, at a beach on the Italian island of Stromboli.

This show was the first in an ambitious two-part series of exhibitions delving into Parks’s lesser-known works. It offered a tantalizing sampler of celebrity portraiture, theatrical fashion photography, gritty photojournalism, and, thanks to a pair of color composites from 1995, Evening and Travelers, a surprisingly formalist approach to almost total abstraction. More than a decade after his death, Parks is still best known for his documentary work with the Farm Security Administration and for the drama he captured in the emotional midcentury struggle for civil rights. In 1948, he was the first African American to be hired as a staff writer and photographer for Life, but well into the 1970s he was also working as a freelancer. He took all kinds of assignments on the side. Much of his freelance work was successful, such as his fashion photography for Vogue, for which he often used the architecture of New York as a prop—evinced in Cocoon Cape, New York, New York, from 1956, of a model posed between two men in tuxedos in front of the Flatiron Building. A few of Parks’s extra assignments, however, ended in disaster. In 1948, he began a fruitful collaboration with the novelist Ralph Ellison. They worked together on “Harlem Is Nowhere,” among other projects. But the magazine that had commissioned the piece went bankrupt before it was published. Ellison managed to wrestle back the rights to his essay, which ran in Harper’s Magazine almost two decades later. But Parks never retrieved the full set of his photographs. They were most likely lost or destroyed in the legal dispute that followed the magazine’s closure. Two photographs here—the abstract circles of Sewer Pipes, Harlem, from 1946, and Untitled, Harlem, New York, from 1952, showing an evocative row of abandoned shoes in the foreground, serve to memorialize that loss.

Later on, Parks wrote a novel, The Learning Tree, which was published in 1963. At the urging of John Cassavetes, he turned the book into a film, which premiered in 1969. It is considered the first Hollywood movie made by a black director, and it paved the way for Shaft and Parks’s essential invention of the blaxploitation genre. When The Learning Tree came out, Life ran an excerpt with a series of photographs, including Boy with June Bug, Fort Scott Canvas, from 1963. The color image of a child lying in tall grass, holding on to a string tied to an insect that sits on his forehead, is quiet and elusive and unlike anything else in the artist’s oeuvre. Though less theatrical than, say, his black-and-white picture of young black Muslims praying in Brooklyn, Boy with June Bug is so full of narrative potential, so suggestive of cinematic time, that it seems to move like a dream, a premonition, a memory. It is a reminder of how well Parks could write, and how often his words went without credit in Life. The two-part show was named “I Am You” for the opening lines of an essay that ran with his pictures in 1968: “What I want. What I am. What you force me to be is what you are. For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself. You are weary of the long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem.”

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie