16 July 2012

Gordon Parks ~ The 'Segregation Series'

At The New York Times, the Lens blog has this set of "civil rights" images by Gordon Parks. These are images that are recently discovered and quite powerful. In this earlier post I wrote the following, partially quoting Parks:
According to the FSA web page Parks once explained to an interviewer that he could not simply depict racists "and say, 'This is a bigot,' because bigots have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it." So, unlike [Larry] Towell who is claiming that we should not depict the powerful, Parks is claiming that is is difficult, if not impossible to do so. Hence, for Parks, the need to focus on those who endure racism and its indiginties rather than on those who engage in racist actions and practices.
Just so. These images carry that recognition into practice.

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Blogger John Edwin Mason said...


I suppose you've noticed what's missing from Parks' photos -- any hint of black political activism, of blacks seeking to change the system, in the courts, at the ballot box, or in the streets. Parks' African Americans are acted upon, but are not actors. They're not the heroes of their own lives (to steal Linda Gordon's phrase).

What we have instead is resignation -- a pained and dignified acceptance of segregation.

That's true of Parks' photos on the Times Lens blog (that you link to) and, more importantly, as they were published in Life in September 1956. You can see the complete Life photo-essay here:


This avoidance of activism was partly due to Life's editorial stance. It consistently supported civil rights for black Americans, but refused to embrace activism. As Wendy Kozol and others have shown, Life saw racism as a moral problem, not a political one.

Photos of hardships and achievements were fine. Activism, not so much. (The photo of the young man with the shotgun is ambiguous. After all, farm kids hunted.)

Seems to me that Parks' wasn't much interested in changing the corporate culture, at least not at this stage of his career. I may be wrong about this, but I'm pretty certain that, on a personal level, he never embraced collective action, not even in the arts and photography. He's not someone you associate with civil rights organizations, on the one hand, or the black arts movement, on the other.

The camera was indeed his weapon, and he fought his battles by himself.

17 July, 2012 08:32  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

John, Thanks for the comment. I surely don't disagree. In part this is a hang over from the conventional FSA approach to photo-reportage. And a nice comparison might be the work of Will Counts in Little Rock the next year.

Unfortunately, the US media turn everything into an ethical matter and consistently turn their backs on politics - especially unruly democratic politics! So Parks is not alone.

17 July, 2012 12:52  

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