Social agitators, joyfully Black: The artistic heirs of Gordon Parks

LEFT: LaToya Ruby Frazier's photo "Zion, Her Mother Shea, and Her Grandfather Mr. Smiley Riding on Their Tennessee Walking Horses, Mares, P.T. (P.T.’s Miss One Of A Kind), Dolly (Secretly), and Blue (Blue’s Royal Threat)," Newton, Miss., 2017/2019. RIGHT: Jamel Shabazz's "Black and White in America," Brooklyn, 2010. (LaToya Ruby Frazier/Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery; Jamel Shabazz)
LEFT: LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photo “Zion, Her Mother Shea, and Her Grandfather Mr. Smiley Riding on Their Tennessee Walking Horses, Mares, P.T. (P.T.’s Miss One Of A Kind), Dolly (Secretly), and Blue (Blue’s Royal Threat),” Newton, Miss., 2017/2019. RIGHT: Jamel Shabazz’s “Black and White in America,” Brooklyn, 2010. (LaToya Ruby Frazier/Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery; Jamel Shabazz)

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y.

The meditative and affecting art installation in the modest gallery in the unremarkable building includes portraits of a community in crisis but one that’s also defined by determination and care. It’s a photographic story about lead-laced water in Flint, Mich. — a catastrophe unleashed in 2014 by officials who stubbornly and cavalierly ignored the will and the well-being of the people they were sworn to serve. The exhibition unfolds mostly from the point of view of Black women, and one of the most moving portraits is of three generations of them. Shea Cobb, in a cheerful pink T-shirt, stands between her daughter Zion and her mother, Renée. Cobb’s left arm is wrapped around her mother in a protective gesture underscoring how, over time, roles reverse; now she’s in charge of keeping her elder safe. Cobb’s other hand rests on Zion’s back as if she’s silently reassuring her daughter that she’s there to catch her if she should stumble while also encouraging her to stand on her own.

The women in the picture aren’t smiling, but they don’t look angry or sad, either. Their expressions are more complicated than that, even young Zion’s. The women look inquisitive, as if they’re asking the viewer: What more could anyone want from us? Zion, whom artist LaToya Ruby Frazier captured from age 8 to 13, appears a bit suspicious or, at least, doubtful. Perhaps she already has witnessed the foolishness of adults too many times to count. The threesome stand in front of an atmospheric water generator, a truck-size example of industrial sorcery that extracts potable water from the air.

The portrait tells the story of Flint with understanding and dignity, without transforming the city’s residents into pathology, statistics, victims or martyrs. It speaks of a community that has grabbed hold of its destiny, even if its grip is tenuous. This picture, in all its simple complexity, was made by Frazier and is from her multimedia project “Flint is Family in Three Acts.”

“There has to be a deep empathy. There’s a need to be compassionate and [to] want to really, truly see someone’s humanity when they’re at their lowest,” Frazier says of her work with Flint residents. “To exalt them and lift them up and honor them. … And Black women’s lives, our perspectives, our voices and our stories are not valued or honored to the greatness that they deserve.”

Frazier’s project is on view until June 24 in a gallery attached to the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the photographs are, in many ways, part of its namesake’s legacy. Located in Westchester County, the foundation is more than an hour away from Manhattan’s art-dense Chelsea neighborhood and miles away from the rich history of Harlem, where Parks, a world-class, barrier-breaking photographer, created some of his most influential work. Nonetheless, his legacy is centered here, in this modest business district of two- and three-story buildings and lush flowering trees. From this space, his influence extends wide.

Parks died in 2006 at 93, but his artistic impact is as potent as ever. He was a Black man documenting the highs and lows of his people, as well as the broader world. His legacy is expansive, arguably more than any other Black photographer’s. He moved through life wearing cowboy hats, leather bombers and ascots, breaking racial barriers, opening doors for others. His work explored issues of inequality and poverty that still haunt us, launching conversations that continue in art, politics and activism. And most important in 2022, Parks and his foundation help subsequent generations of Black artists see themselves, their communities and their possibilities more clearly. Examining their art, and looking at the ways in which it relates to the work Parks was doing more than 50 years ago, helps us to better understand the impact of history, human nature and systemic racism on our lives today. It also reminds us to pay attention to the simple joys of everyday life.

What Gordon Parks Witnessed

At a time when the country is spinning in circles trying to make sense of race, ward off inhumanity and define social justice, Parks’s artistic heirs are uniquely positioned to shed light, offer guidance and question the status quo. They’re doing so with heartening audacity and blessed urgency.

“It’s not that I see so much of him in one artist. I see some of him in a lot of artists. I feel Gordon is ubiquitous,” says writer Jelani Cobb, one of the executive producers of a recent documentary on Parks and incoming dean of Columbia Journalism School. “He’s one of those people who may not have the answer, but he helps you understand the right question.”

ON BLACK DIGNITY

Parks was a photographer, filmmaker and writer who chronicled the lives of Black men, women and children in their finest hour, on their worst days and, perhaps most important, during their most quotidian moments. He photographed fashion for Ebony and Vogue magazine and shot celebrities, gang members and the impoverished for Life. His images of cleaning woman Ella Watson, the unemployed, the almost-forgotten members of our society, hang on the walls of museums and in the homes of privileged collectors.

The foundation is the repository for his negatives, contact sheets and notes, which are stored floor-to-ceiling in a temperature-controlled vault. The foundation’s library houses myriad exhibition catalogues and books celebrating his work, as well as a bound collection of Life’s archives. The walls are adorned with magnificent examples of Parks’s photography, including images from his series on segregation in the South and from “A Man Becomes Invisible,” his collaboration with writer Ralph Ellison. There are also photographs by those Parks influenced. The foundation is not a cemetery; it’s an incubator.

Parks is well-known for the 1969 semi-autobiographical film, “The Learning Tree,” which he wrote and directed, and for his direction of “Shaft,” which in 1971 helped launch a new Black film vernacular. But his photography is at the heart of his catholic creativity. And it seems as though there’s always a celebration of that work … somewhere, in some form. In 2017, the video for Kendrick Lamar’s song “Element” re-created several of Parks’s photographs. In 2021, his photography was the subject of the HBO documentary “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks.” An exhibition featuring his Pittsburgh photographs opened in April at the city’s Carnegie Museum of Art. Indeed, his name was called out in an installment of “And Just Like That” — the 2021 revival of “Sex and the City” — as a two-word seal of approval of a character’s taste in Black artists.

Just recently, Howard University acquired a trove of Parks’s earliest photographs as a source of inspiration and scholarly research. And in May, after two pandemic gap years, the foundation’s annual gala once again highlighted men and women who further communication across the cultural divide, a yawning gap that only seems to get wider. The 2022 honorees are artist Mark Bradford, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, as well as Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee. Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys, who have emerged as preeminent collectors of Parks’s photography, co-chaired the evening dedicated to art and social justice.

Howard University acquires landmark collection of Gordon Parks photos

“It’s a proven fact that we’re going in a circle in some fortunate ways and in some unfortunate ways. Because fortunately, Black is still beautiful. Unfortunately, we’re still getting treated the way we’re getting treated by the police,” Dean says in an interview before the gala. Parks’s work is “almost like a photographic Bible … something that people look at to go off and have belief in and get guidance from.”

Frazier, who photographed the family in Flint, is the first recipient of a prize bestowed by the foundation in collaboration with German publisher Steidl and a thick, clothbound volume of images accompanies the current exhibition. In one of the pictures, Zion is at home hunched over her books. She’s using a bed as a desk, and her papers are spread out before her as she completes her homework. Atop the bedside table are two bottles of water — reminders of the odds she faces, stubborn truths about the unfairness of America’s economic system.

Frazier grew up in the 1980s in Braddock, Penn., an old steel mill town that also had to contend with lead contamination. “When I arrived in Flint and I saw that it was the same kind of environmental racism, it lit a fire under me to make the most beautiful, humane, dignified, empowering images of her so she will know … that she is a victor, not a victim,” Frazier says.

Her pictures echo those from Parks’s 1968 Life magazine story on Harlem’s Fontenelles, another family that struggled mightily to live with dignity even as they were exhausted by a social safety net that offered little security. Parks captured the Fontenelle children’s ambitions, the father’s proud but frustrated manhood, the mother’s hope. Like Parks with the Fontenelles, Frazier built a relationship with Flint residents, spending long expanses of time with them before she began to document their day-to-day lives.

“When you look at that image of Zion doing her homework, I’m speaking to Gordon. This is me speaking directly to Gordon Parks,” Frazier tells me. “I’m making that cross-generational, visual nod to him. But it’s also uplifting Zion. There’s a little girl in that same photo essay on the Fontenelle family. Yes, they live in a dilapidated home. Yes, they don’t have lights and gas. Yes, there are mice. Yes, they don’t have food. But what do you see those children doing? Studying their books.” The photographs were taken almost 50 years apart, and yet they tell the same story — that of Black children striving despite everything weighted against them.

Should museums mount exhibitions with a moral agenda? Absolutely. If they do it well.

Another heir to Parks’s legacy is Tyler Mitchell, who at 23 years old was thrust into the international spotlight when he shot Beyoncé for Vogue magazine in 2018, thus becoming the first Black photographer to have his work featured on the glossy’s cover in its then-126-year history. Soon after, he photographed Vice President Harris for the cover in his signature soft-focus familiarity. Mitchell was a 2021 recipient of a foundation fellowship, and his exhibition reopened the gallery this past fall after its pandemic closure. The most recent fellowship recipients, photographer Andre D. Wagner and Bisa Butler, a textile artist who has reimagined the quilting tradition, will install shows later this year. Other artistic scions include Devin Allen, Deana Lawson, Dario Calmese, Derrick Adams and, perhaps Parks’s closest creative kin, Jamel Shabazz.

“It’s impossible as an artist not to be influenced by his work,” says fashion designer Dao-Yi Chow. He and business partner Maxwell Osborne created a collection of Public School NYC shirts featuring Parks’s photography. “His images speak to multiple generations. The power of his work is not just his access. It was that he never sat in judgment of what he was covering.”

ON BLACK BEAUTY

Parks’s photography gave voice to people who looked like him. He patiently immersed himself in the communities he was documenting, showcasing their unremarkable humanity. Even today, such a patient form of expression is a highly politicized act. “Gordon uses the term ‘love’ in his work. Tyler does the same in seeing a love story” with his subjects, says Deborah Willis, chair of New York University’s photography department and Mitchell’s former professor.

When she saw Mitchell’s photographs of Beyoncé, Willis immediately focused on the ivory fabric floating behind the performer, who is in the foreground, in one image wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white dress that recalls “Daughters of the Dust,” in another with her hair in thick braids and dressed in the colors of the Pan-African flag. “What I love about that work is the clothesline, the shadows on the sheets. I was so excited about the way he reimagined women at work. All that sense of labor, love about our clothes, connecting across the clothes line. I also connected it to art history,” says Willis, who is also a photographer and curator. “I saw these critical moments of art history and our history in this singular image.”

Willis also saw the influence of Parks. In a picture of the Fontenelle family’s home, Parks highlights a little girl’s dress hanging, neatly ironed amid the chaos, waiting to be slipped on: “You see the awful things around them, but you’re also seeing the little girl’s dress. It was her armor — an ironed dress — and her sense of pride. He could see that.”

The ability of a single portrait to capture beauty, history, progress and the power of self-definition was one of Parks’s great strengths as an artist. He accomplished this in one of his most famous images, that of a woman in a pale blue dress standing with a little girl in a pristine white frock with matching anklets. The visual story is about proud and intentional femininity. The woman and child stand together on a quiet street, their idyllic wonder is in defiance of the red neon sign above them that screams: Colored Entrance. Parks upended stereotypes and told new stories about beauty.

What kind of story could Dario Calmese tell in the portrait Vanity Fair commissioned him to make with actor Viola Davis in 2020, a year of such profound civic unraveling that it has drawn comparisons to the 1960s? That was the question Calmese asked himself as he became the first Black photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine’s more than 100-year history.

He photographed Davis, who considers her very existence an act of protest, with her back to his camera, her torso enveloped in shadows and her body wrapped in an indigo blue Max Mara coat styled to expose the smooth expanse of her dark skin from shoulder to shoulder. Davis’s face is in profile. She’s not looking at the viewer; instead, she seems lost in her own contented reverie. Her posture is layered with both grim history and determined optimism; it’s rich with influences that infuriate and inspire. Calmese was guided by artist Carrie Mae Weems’s “Museums,” in which she poses in front of renowned art institutions with her back facing the viewer. The backward posture and unapologetic gaze are also a rebuke to the dehumanizing images of enslaved men and women taken in 1850 at the direction of Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz. And the image speaks of Parks and all of the evidence he produced showing that a portrait can be fashion, art, journalism and Black activism all at once.

“I wondered what that means, for a Black woman to have her back toward the viewer,” Calmese says of a stance that is both vulnerable and defiant. “I thought about the Agassiz slave portraits and … the agency that they claimed barreling down the lens of this White man.”

For Calmese, who has been in conversation on the Parks Foundation website, photographing Davis in the midst of racial justice protests was an opportunity to reframe American history: “I knew: This is a moment to be unapologetically Black.”

The beauty of Blackness is complex. It’s hewed out of pain and possibility. In a set of photographs exhibited in the fall at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, Dawoud Bey set aside his usual focus on portraiture to further the story of today’s racial reckoning by photographing the remains of five plantations in Louisiana not far from the Mississippi River. The images from “In This Here Place” are not of grand mansions or wizened elders but of tiny wooden houses, shacks and swampland captured in black and white. Each picture is devoid of humans, but their spirit, brutalized but unbowed, is present. The landscapes are haunted by the voices of the Black men and women who were enslaved there.

“All those portraits I’ve made have always been situated in a certain place. And that place has been part of the narrative. Now I’m narrowly focused on the history or narrative embedded in the landscape. Our history with this country began on plantations, and there’s a straight line from plantations to George Floyd: It’s the dehumanization of African Americans,” Bey says. “I’m bearing witness to what lives and breathes in the land.”

Bey captures the spoiled splendor of the landscape in the same way that Parks allowed the power of place to be a fully present character in his work. In Parks’s “Outside Looking In,” Black children peer through a chain-link fence into a lush playground they can’t visit. Their backs are to Parks’s camera. There’s yearning in their body language; there are ghosts in the weeds.

That image, shot in Mobile, Ala., in 1956, inspired photographer Itaysha Jordan as she worked on a story for The Washington Post’s magazine. She re-created it as a specific commentary on the fashion industry’s outsiders and insiders. “I loved that he could toggle between documenting African American life and photographing for Vogue,” Jordan says. “I wanted to capture the spirit of Gordon Parks, because what is so impressive about him is his versatility. He’s a storyteller. And when I became a photographer, his work aligned with everything I was interested in: art, fashion, activism.”

Fashion’s Racial Reckoning

Parks is the bridge between the civil rights generation and many of today’s social justice agitators — the selfie takers, the guerrilla street photographers and credentialed veterans. Each of them uses the camera to stake their claim on the culture. Like Parks, who navigated between the gilded establishment and ’round the way society, Jordan tries to move seamlessly across boundaries. “I have one foot in Flatbush and one on the Upper East Side. I’m trying to bring together both worlds,” she says. And in these past two years, “I’m more inspired. I’m more empowered to go even harder.”

“I have more confidence to go out there and be more authentically myself,” she says. “In everything I do, I’m always Black.”

ON BLACK JOY

Swizz Beatz, or rather Kasseem Dean, is sitting in a recording studio in California, a baby grand piano just behind him, where he’s serving as supportive husband to his wife, Alicia Keys, as she works on an album. Keys started the couple’s Parks collection by buying two portraits of Muhammad Ali as birthday presents for Dean. The pictures aren’t of Ali victorious but in quieter, more intimate moments, such as when he’s jogging in a gray mist. Parks’s most intimate photographs hold particular power for Dean. He’s fascinated by those moments when people are suspended between hope and resignation, failure and resolve. He admires the beauty of the unexceptional and the activism implicit in documenting that.

“When he was taking those photos,” Dean says, “he was giving life to those people at the same time.”

Like Parks, Bey aims to give his subjects the dignity they’re often denied, along with the ability to simply be. He relishes capturing ordinary people, folks whose rich interiority is not often respected or even noticed. “They’re just living their lives,” Bey says, “but all our lives are full of meaning.” It’s a kinship also shared with artist Derrick Adams, who was a 2018 recipient of a Gordon Parks fellowship. Adams’s work is celebrated by audiences that range from established curators at the Hirshhorn Museum to disruptive clothing designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss to the working Joe citizenry of his hometown of Baltimore.

“What I like about some of the classic European paintings is that there was a certain level of privilege in the way that the painters capture levels of mundaneness. The subject has such privilege that whatever they’re doing is significant enough for us to think about hundreds of years later. A woman, just sitting in a chair, is so significant for us to care about and to think about and understand the social structure around this figure sitting in the chair,” Adams says. “And so for me, as a young artist, I realized that the people around me sitting in chairs are interesting, too.”

People “talk about this idea of Black joy, which is kind of something that is pretty much repeated throughout my work. But what people kind of misunderstand about the idea of joy is, it’s not necessarily about joy. It’s more about normalcy. People translate that into joy because they see the Black figure occupying a space with a sense of confidence and a sense of prominence. And I think that people think of that as being joyful,” says Adams as he sits in his studio in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn surrounded by an explosion of color that is his own art.

“I like that, but that’s not necessarily my main focus. My main focus is, I’m okay with making a boring image,” Adams says. “We don’t have to be performing in order to attract people to who we are, what we represent. I think that the idea of us sitting, contemplating — that moment between the action, I think that’s important to keep in circulation as a visual artist so people can see that we have these moments of reflection.”

“Young Black people can see that we have moments where we aren’t doing anything,” Adams says, “and that’s okay.” At a time when the police have been called because Black people have been birdwatching or grilling or sleeping, exalting Black people for doing nothing is positively radical.

ON BLACK LIGHT

This year, the second Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize was awarded to Jamel Shabazz. He considers Parks his North Star. “His life has been a road map,” Shabazz says.

The Brooklyn-born photographer came to his craft through a circuitous route. He dabbled in picture-taking when he was a child. His father was a photographer, and although he was barred from using the expensive Nikon cameras that he maintained, his mother had Kodak Instamatics that were accessible. “I was able to see beauty that I didn’t know existed. I was able to look at life from a whole different perspective,” Shabazz says. “Once I pressed that shutter, it was almost magical.”

But when he went into the military, he left the cameras behind. He was stationed in Germany, and he turned his attention to music as a refuge. He didn’t document his time overseas, and that was something he regretted. So when he returned home in the early 1980s, he carried his camera with him wherever he went because “I never wanted to be without memory,” he says. Shabazz scoured the neighborhood looking for stories to tell and established a reputation as a street portraitist, someone who turned a compassionate eye to his community, not just to highlight style and personality but also character. “I look for love,” he says. “It goes beyond the image. It’s about building a relationship, humanizing and trying to aid them in any way I could.” A retrospective of his work is on exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through Sept. 4.

Shabazz is a journalist trying to document an objective truth; he’s a street photographer who poses his subjects. He tries to coax out their humanity, which is often hidden behind a wall of defensiveness. “I have to work extra hard to get people to smile,” he says. “We live in a society now where it’s considered weak to show compassion and smile and all that.”

One of his most famous photographs, “Flying High,” shot in Brownsville in Brooklyn in 1982, captures three Black boys at play, or perhaps, in competition. Two of them serve as audience to a third who is mid-back flip above a pile of dilapidated mattresses set in the middle of a deserted, graffitied parking lot. No one is smiling, and yet there is a profound sense of escape, of daring, of improbable lightness. It’s a call back to Parks while also nodding toward future possibilities.

In these last years, Shabazz has thought a lot about how to respond to the country’s relentless mayhem: the murder of George Floyd, the street protests, the low-grade ache of having one’s culture and one’s life politicized. “I’m looking to make this world a better place, to document and bring light to it. To not just highlight circumstances but to add lightness,” Shabazz says. “Photography is a form of visual medicine. It’s a weapon to destroy negative thinking.” And like Parks, he chooses to deploy his mighty artillery within his community — and let the impact reverberate beyond.

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