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Gordon Parks Photos at Block Museum Capture 20th Century America

March 31, 2009 | by Judy Moore
EVANSTON, Ill. --- An exhibition of iconic photography documenting 20th century American life by barrier-breaking African American artist Gordon Parks will be on view this spring at Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus.

The exhibition, "Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks," in the Block Museum's Main Gallery April 24 to June 28, features 73 works personally selected by Parks, the first African American hired by a mass-circulation magazine ("Life") and to direct movies ("Shaft," "The Learning Tree") in the Hollywood studio system. Many of Parks' images, such as custodian Ella Watson posing with her mop and broom before a U.S. flag in "American Gothic" (1942), Malcolm X addressing a 1963 Black Muslim rally in Chicago, the fists of boxer Muhammad Ali after a 1966 victory in the ring, and exiled Black Panther Party members Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in Algeria in 1970, helped illustrate the social changes, occurring during the second half of the 20th century in America.

To complement the "Bare Witness" exhibition, the Block Museum and Block Cinema have organized programs that are open to the public. These events include an April 23 screening of Parks' semi-autobiographical 1969 film "The Learning Tree" and a May 8 screening of Parks' 1971 film "Shaft." A May 7 talk by Parks' son David, a May 16 panel discussion, and a May 28 gallery talk are also planned, as well as guided weekend tours of the exhibition.

Parks (1912–2006) grew up poor in Kansas and Minnesota during the Great Depression, dropping out of high school just a few months before graduation. In the 1930s while working as a waiter on a Pullman train car, he became fascinated by photographs in magazines left behind by passengers. Within a few years Parks had purchased his first camera. Later, explaining his attraction to the medium, Parks said, "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs."

After working as a fashion photographer for a St. Paul clothing store, Parks moved in 1940 to Chicago's Bronzeville district, home to a flourishing African American literary and artistic circle similar to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. ("Bare Witness" includes a 1941 portrait Parks took in Chicago of Langston Hughes, the author and poet essential to the black cultural movements in both New York and Chicago.) On the heels of an exhibition of his photographs at the South Side Community Art Center he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.

Parks moved to Washington, D. C., to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the New Deal-era federal agency charged with documenting and combating poverty in America. Parks' first assignment resulted in a series of photographs detailing the day-to-day life of FSA cleaning woman Ella Watson and her family. During the following years Parks would produce a remarkable set of documentary images for the Office of War Information and the Standard Oil of New Jersey photography project.

In 1948 Parks' first cover photograph for "Life" hit newsstands and American homes. Later that year, his photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader led to a full-time job at the magazine. During the next two decades Parks contributed several photo-essays on subjects ranging from poverty in urban and rural America and Brazil to portraits of African American leaders Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party members. He also photographed cultural figures that included actress Ingrid Bergman, composer Leonard Bernstein and boxer Muhammad Ali. Parks' 1961 photo essay on an asthmatic boy in the slums of Rio de Janiero spurred $30,000 in donations from "Life" magazine readers that allowed the child to travel to the United States for treatment and his family to build a new home.

In the late 1960s, Parks turned toward cinema, writing and music, directing several motion pictures (including the hits "Shaft" and "Shaft's Big Score"), publishing a number of memoirs and books of poetry, and composing film scores, a symphony, and the libretto and music for a ballet about Martin Luther King Jr. Before his death in 2006, Parks chose the photographs on display in "Bare Witness" as representative of his best work.

Unless noted, the following "Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks" exhibition related programs are free of charge.

Guided tours of the exhibition will be available at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from April 25 through June 28. NOTE: there will be no tour Saturday, June 6.

At 8 p.m. Thursday, April 23, Block Cinema will screen Park's semi-autobiographical 1969 film "The Learning Tree." At 6 p.m. Thursday, May 7, his son David will speak on "Gordon Parks and His Artistic Process, Photography, Film and Writing." At 8 p.m. Friday, May 8, David Parks will introduce a showing of his father's 1971 film "Shaft" at Block Cinema and answer questions after the screening. General admission to Block Cinema is $6, $4 for Northwestern University faculty, staff and students with IDs, and seniors 65 and older. The May 7 talk by David Parks is free.

The panel discussion "Gordon Parks: A Renaissance Man" will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 16. Panelists will include Bob Black, cofounder and vice president of the Chicago Association of African American Photographers; Philip Brookman, director of curatorial affairs, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; Darlene Clark Hine, chair and professor, department of African American studies, and professor of history, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University; Maren Stange, associate professor, The Cooper Union, New York; and Deborah Willis, chair and professor, department of photography and imaging, New York University.

Block Museum Senior Curator Debora Wood will give a gallery talk of the exhibition "Bare Witness" at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 28.

"Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks" was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by generous support from The Capital Group Foundation, the Cantor Arts Center's Hohbach Family Fund, and Cantor Arts Center Members. Its presentation at the Block has been generously supported by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York. Additional funding has been provided by the Myers Foundations and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. Educational programming in conjunction with "Bare Witness" is part of Three American Photographers: In Depth, a series of programs at the Block Museum sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Admission to the exhibition is free. For more information, call (847) 491-4000 or visit the Block Museum website at http://www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.
Topics: Campus Life