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Portraits by renowned photographer Gordon Parks on display at Cantor Arts Center

He began as a freelance photographer, then eventually became the first African American person on the staff of Life Magazine. His two decades of work at Life spanned an impressive range of subjects, from Harlem gangs to fashion photographs of rich and famous celebrities.
Installation view of "A Loaded Camera: Gordon Parks" exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center.

The last of three exhibitions celebrating the Capital Group Foundation's 2019 gift of 1,000 prints by renowned American photographers is now on view at the Cantor Arts Center. Entitled "Gordon Parks: A Loaded Camera," the show features a selection of mainly portraits created by the renowned photographer, filmmaker and author. It's a somber, serious show that reflects Parks' desire to use his camera, as he explained, "as a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs."

When asked how she culled this exhibition from the 68 Parks photographs in the gift, curator Elizabeth Mitchell explained, "I wanted the exhibition to foreground his work as a portraitist, and so I looked for photographs that told clear stories through strong figurative compositions."

Parks, who bought his first camera at a pawnshop in his native Kansas, was a self-taught photographer. Greatly influenced by the social realism of the New Deal's Farm Security Administration photographers, Parks saw a career in the medium as a way out of the poverty and segregation he experienced as a youth.

He began as a freelance photographer, then eventually became the first African American person on the staff of Life Magazine. His two decades of work at Life spanned an impressive range of subjects, from Harlem gangs to fashion photographs of rich and famous celebrities. "Those commissions and assignments may not have been as disparate to him then as they seem to us now," noted Mitchell. "They were opportunities for him to visually explore focused stories within broader subjects that interested him."

Langston Hughes, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. Gelatin silver print by Gordon Parks. . Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The gelatin silver prints are arranged by themes such as poverty, gang wars, racial tension and segregation and cover the decades from the 1940s to 1960s.

These are fine examples of "straight" photography in which no fancy lenses or darkroom manipulations are used. We see what Parks saw and experienced, and the resulting prints create a visceral reaction for the viewer, perhaps because the issues remain relevant today.

The tragic toll of gang warfare is seen in "The Funeral of Maurice Gaines" (1948). The 15-year-old is laid out in a casket lined with white satin. Two of his young friends stand beside him, looking stunned that someone so young could be dead.

Whether he was capturing the chaotic, dangerous life of the Midtowners gang members or the poverty of the Fontenelle family, there is a quiet intensity in Park's work. He does not show us the cause of the issues so much as the aftermath that his subjects must live with. Ironically, when assigned to cover the Black Panthers, he was met with distrust because he worked for a white-run magazine. That sense of unease is clearly captured in "Black Panther Headquarters" (1970).

It is in his portraits of individuals that we can clearly see Parks' ability to move seamlessly in a variety of social circles, as well as his adeptness at gaining the trust of his subjects. Parks explained his approach toward portraiture in the retrospective catalog "Half Past Autumn": "I attempted to intertwine their personalities with their professions."

"Malcolm X" (1963) captures the Black Muslim leader at a rally, his hand raised in order to drive home a point. It's a study in black-and-white contrasts, made powerful by the completely dark background. While this portrait captures Malcolm X as a powerful orator, Parks took a different approach when photographing Muhammad Ali in 1965. The often bombastic fighter is seen here in a close-up of his upper body, appearing pensive and quiet. "This is an incredibly elegant and intimate portrait," commented Mitchell. "It is a fantastic example of how Parks allowed his subjects to be themselves and express their own stories."

Noted author Langston Hughes posed for Parks in 1941. He gazes directly at the camera, while his right hand rests against a window, as if trying to gain access. Parks' use of contrasts and shadows makes this a dramatic depiction of a writer who strove to capture the Black experience in America.

Parks took numerous pictures of Duke Ellington, famed jazz musician, often while performing. The print in this exhibition, dated 1960, shows the musician deep in thought, gazing skyward as his face is reflected in the raised piano lid.

Parks explained his wide range of portrait subjects in this way, "They are of people I have admired and felt at ease with." One of the most unusual prints in the show focuses on actress Ingrid Bergman. It was taken while Bergman was filming a movie on the Italian island of Stromboli in 1949. She was at the center of a scandal after leaving her husband for director Roberto Rossellini; it was an international cause clbre, with the actress facing the wrath of both the press and public. She stands in the foreground, looking to the side, while a group of Italian women in the background stop to stare at her. It is a dream-like, surreal image even somewhat menacing. It is clear that the women are standing in judgment of her, but Bergman appears strong and defiant.

Parks' most iconic portrait is "American Gothic" (1942). It is an early work and one that he carefully composed. Ella Watson worked as a cleaner at the FSA building in Washington, DC. After conversing with her and learning about her life story, Parks asked Watson to pose with her broom and mop in front of the American flag. This powerful picture has become emblematic of the fight for dignity and civil rights for Black citizens of this country. When Parks showed the photograph to his boss, his response was, "that picture could get us all fired." Parks wrote in his retrospective catalog, "Washington now had a black charwoman, standing erectly with mop and broom before the American flag. Her title: American Gothic."

Duke Ellington Listening to Playback, Los Angeles, California, 1960. Gelatin silver print by Gordon Parks. Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation.

Always an innovator, Parks was an early practitioner of color photography. He explained, "I tend to use color when it dominates, while certain photographers feel that only black and white expresses the real truth of the subject matter." In "Snow, White Plains" from 1958, Parks honed in on how the color blue can add an icy frigidity to a wintry landscape. Pictured is a long patio table, surrounded by 10 metal chairs, a snow-covered reminder of summer days and eating outside. The accumulation of snow on the table makes it resemble a coffin and the wrought-iron chairs appear ghostly thanks to the blue hue of the print.

Now that the Capital Group gift has been celebrated with three single-themed exhibitions, the Cantor will draw from it for future group shows. Josie Johnson, Capital Group Fellow for Photography, will curate "Reality Makes Them Dream: American Photography, 1929-1941," scheduled for March 28 to July 30 of 2023.
Gordon Parks: A Loaded Camera is on display through July 3. The Cantor Arts Center is located at 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford. For more information, visit

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