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Past Exhibitions

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Gordon Parks: Segregation Story

November 15, 2014–June 21, 2015

This exhibition showcases more than forty color photographs by trailblazing African American artist Gordon Parks, many on view for the first time. Created for an influential 1950s Life magazine article, these photographs offer a powerful look at the daily life and struggles of a multigenerational family living in segregated Alabama.

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty.” — Gordon Parks

Overview

In 1956, Life magazine published twenty-six color photographs taken by staff photographer Gordon Parks. The photo essay, titled The Restraints: Open and Hidden, exposed Americans to the effects of racial segregation. Parks focused on the everyday activities of the related Thornton, Causey, and Tanner families in and near Mobile, Alabama, capturing their everyday struggles to overcome discrimination.

Parks’s photo essay served as crucial documentation of the Jim Crow South and acted as a national platform for challenging racial inequality. However, rather than focusing on the demonstrations, boycotts, and brutality that characterized the battle for racial justice, Parks emphasized the prosaic details of one family’s life. In particular, his ability to elicit empathy through an emphasis on intimacy and shared human experience made the photographs especially poignant.

The serene images provided an exceptional account of a nationwide struggle, yet one that remained invisible to many. Parks strove to undo racial stereotypes by providing a positive, complex account of real people. By contrasting the normal activities of daily life – preparing taxes, doing laundry, cooking dinners, cutting timber – with persistent evidence of social inequality, he exposed the damaging effects of racial and economic subjugation on the family’s pride and opportunity.

Although the pictures associated with Parks’s work for the segregation story were believed lost for several decades, The Gordon Parks Foundation recently uncovered more than two hundred transparencies that comprise the full series. This exhibition brings together more than forty of those images, many on view for the first time. Together, they give a sense of the complexity and breadth of Parks’s vision and also provide a deeper look into the experience of segregation in the South.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006) was a trailblazing African American photojournalist, writer, filmmaker, and musician. Parks’s early experiences of poverty and segregation subsequently shaped his artistic ambitions. He held a number of jobs before turning to photography in 1939, after seeing images of migrant workers published in a magazine. He was drawn to the potential for photography to serve as a “weapon” for social change. Parks became a self-taught photographer after purchasing his first camera at a pawnshop and honed his skills during a stint as a society and fashion photographer in Chicago.

After Parks earned a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for his gritty photographs of Chicago’s South Side, the Farm Security Administration hired him in the early 1940s to document the current social conditions of the nation. By 1944, he was the only black photographer working for Vogue, and in 1948 he became the first African American staff photographer to work for Life magazine. Parks remained at Life for over two decades, chronicling subjects related to humanitarian issues and producing iconic images of celebrities and politicians. His projects took him all across the globe: from the gang-ridden streets of Harlem, New York, to poverty-stricken shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, Parks persistently sought to capture the spirit of shared human experience.

In 1970, Parks co-founded Essence magazine and served as the editorial director for the first three years of its publication. Parks later became Hollywood’s first major black director when he released the film adaptation of his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree, for which he also composed the musical score. He is, however, best known as the director of the 1971 hit movie Shaft. Parks received the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and received more than fifty honorary doctorates over the course of his career.

Life Magazine

From its debut in 1936 up until the mid-1960s, Life was America’s premier source for photojournalism. Founder Henry R. Luce promoted the magazine as a platform for social commentary and public persuasion. During its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, it had a readership of more than twenty million in the United States and Europe.

Despite the scope of its circulation, or perhaps because of it, the magazine often took a more conservative approach to the issue of segregation. Parks’s photo essay The Restraints: Open and Hidden was published in Life on September 24, 1956. The piece was noteworthy in its forward critique of the limitations imposed on African Americans. The images present scenes of Sunday church services, family gatherings, farm work, domestic duties, children’s play, window-shopping, and at-home haircuts – all in the context of the restraints of the Jim Crow South.

Alabama, 1956

By 1956, the early efforts of the civil rights movement were coming to light. Earlier that year, Autherine Juanita Lucy became the first African American ever admitted to a white public school in the state of Alabama. Other civil resistance campaigns, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts of 1955-1956, were in full swing.

These victories against racial discrimination were overshadowed, however, by continued persecution. Parks described Alabama as “the motherland of racism” and recognized that his assignment came with substantial risk to both himself and the Thornton family.

During his assignment, Parks faced persecution and harassment. He wrote in his diary of the terror he felt: “My thoughts swirl around the tragedies that brought me here. Just a few miles down the road, Klansmen are burning and shooting blacks and bombing their churches. …Lying here in the dark, hunted, I feel death crawling the dusty roads.”

The Thornton family also bore the consequences of speaking out. Allie Lee Causey, one of the Thorntons’ daughters, suffered considerably. Local service stations refused to sell gas to her family and confiscated their belongings. Allie Lee was subsequently fired from her teaching job and, fearing for her family’s safety, quickly moved them out of Alabama. Life provided $25,000 to help the family relocate.

Organization and Support

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Support for this exhibition is provided by The Coca-Cola Company.

Additional support provided by leading corporate sponsors and benefactors for the 10th annual David C. Driskell Prize dinner held on May 2, 2014.