London

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, pigment print, 20 × 24". From the series “Segregation in the South,” 1956. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, pigment print, 20 × 24". From the series “Segregation in the South,” 1956. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks

Alison Jacques Gallery

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) made an indelible mark on American life. It marked him, too. Born into a poor Black family in segregated Kansas, Parks saw the brutality of racial strife early on: He almost drowned, at age eleven, after a group of white boys threw him into a river. Pinballing through various jobs in flophouses and brothels, he bought his first camera at the age of twenty-five. His 1948 documentary photos of a Harlem gang war for Life magazine made him a household name; later he pioneered the blaxploitation movie genre by directing Shaft (1971). This first installment of a two-part show tracked the case Parks made for American culture as Black culture, telling open secrets about lives rendered both highly visible and unseen.

In “Segregation in the South,” 1956, the first of two series featured in the show, Parks chronicled the racially divided Deep South. We see a family dressed in their elegant best—hats and dresses and starched white shirts—at a Nashville bus station under a sign reading COLORED WAITING ROOM. Elsewhere, children dressed in fire-engine-red outfits queue for ice cream under the COLORED sign. An old white woman serves them. The store’s brick wall is painted blinding white. Color whispers its punishing difference, with the injustice repeated so often—WHITE ONLY, LOTS FOR COLORED—that it almost vanishes.

Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, another work from the series, shows an elderly couple sitting together on a velveteen sofa. The husband looks serene in suspenders and tie, while his wife stares with an unflinching intensity, arms crossed. The pattern of her dress picks out his tie and the vase of flowers on the table. Behind them hangs a photograph of their younger selves: history as the quiet dignity of survival. Fragile and time-bound, Parks’s prints frequently insist on their status as bodies, moving now through the institutionalized white gallery space. And Parks sees color, despite the prohibitions connected with the idea, as self-expression. Two girls, head bowed outside a church, wear matching aquamarine dresses: twin oases that quench the eye. Elsewhere, a mournful-eyed boy, mouth downturned, wears a gaudy red cowboy hat. Is he playacting his own freedom? Or miming America’s expansionist colonial story, innocence already lost?

First glances interlace with generations of violence and trauma. A woman, holding her bonnet-clad baby, flashes a look of guarded distrust. Elsewhere, three young boys stand behind a barbed-wire fence. The two Black kids hold toy guns. One stares pensively down the barrel at the camera, while his friend squints to take aim. Meanwhile, their unarmed blond companion poses and grins, his expression so natural as to shade into menace. It’s a chilling, profound image, pulsing with the scars of history and a volatile future. Where do we learn who we’re meant to be? And how do we inherit what has come before us?

In the 1963 photo essay “Black Muslims,” Parks documented the Nation of Islam in gravely somber images, mostly in black and white. Ethel Sharrieff, daughter of movement leader Elijah Muhammad, dominates the camera with her implacable, blazing stare. An image of Black Muslim women praying, ranked in hijabs, counters violent media portrayals. LIBERTY OR DEATH placards at a Harlem rally bluntly call the odds, while a white police officer diverts his gaze. A child stretches his arms before a DO NOT CROSS police barrier. A man in a suit, smiling hopefully, holds a newspaper with the headline OUR FREEDOM CAN’T WAIT! It must have seemed that America had waited long enough. It’s still waiting.