Legendary photographer Gordon Parks was the “cool uncle.”
“One day he called me up and said, ‘Baby, the New York Times called me America’s sexiest great-grandpa,’ ” said his great-niece, Robin Hickman-Winfield. “Another time he called and said, ‘P. Diddy, or whatever his name is, is gonna buy my Malcolm X portrait.’ ”
Hickman-Winfield and Parks, who died in 2006, had a deep and close relationship, talking about everything from heartbreak to depression. She promised Parks she would keep his legacy alive. That pledge fueled the exhibit “A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity” now on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
The show, curated by Hickman-Winfield, weaves 22 of Parks’ photos, spanning U.S. history from Jim Crow America through the civil rights era, along with 30 photographs by one of his artistic heirs, Jamel Shabazz, a street photographer who has documented New York’s brown and black communities since the 1980s.
Parks’ legacy also pops up outside of the exhibition space, with six prints by young Minneapolis photographer Den-Zell Gilliard, who cites him as an inspiration.
The exhibit is named after Parks’ 1966 autobiography. In “A Choice of Weapons,” he wrote about how, as a teen in the Twin Cities, he picked up a camera instead of a gun while struggling to survive, educate himself and live the dream.
The show includes interpretive wall labels written by students in a class Hickman-Winfield teaches at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul. Founded nearly three decades ago as an alternative learning center to inspire kids to finish school, and renamed for Parks in 2007, it employs the arts as a tool against racism, poverty and homelessness.
A family relic
A well-worn, bright blue fleece sweater, covered in lint balls and speckled with white hairs, sits on a white pillar in an alcove near the exhibition entrance.
“I slept with it for months after he passed away,” said Hickman-Winfield, gently and lovingly picking at the fuzz.
Parks’ blue sweater may be sentimental, but the rest of the show is not.
His photos and Shabazz’s complement each other, creating a visual flow through the exhibit. Parks’ 1963 black-and-white photograph “Black Muslim Schoolchildren” peers in on five little kids looking up at an adult who has just arrived; it is paired with Shabazz’s 1990 “Father and Sons,” with the father in a red suit and his two kids standing in front of him in mini black tuxedos.
Each photo encapsulates a world, giving a momentary glimpse into black life in America, past and present. Shabazz’s “A Soldier’s Story, New York City” (2010) captures a sweet moment of a soldier in army fatigues smooching his love on a busy New York train while their little baby sleeps in a carriage, draped in a blue blanket.
Nearby, Parks’ “Store Front, Mobile, Alabama,” shot in 1956 for a Life magazine series about segregation, is a full-color image of a store in the Deep South, covered in red advertising signs. Women and children and a group of boys relax on the porch.
St. Paul beginnings
Born into poverty in Fort Scott, Kan., in 1912, Parks moved to St. Paul at age 15 after his mother passed away, living for a time with his older sister.
He started his career by taking photos for what is now the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest black-owned newspaper. He went on to become a photographer with the federal Farm Security Administration, chronicling social conditions across the nation.
Parks freelanced for Glamour and Ebony magazines and in 1948 became Life’s first African-American photographer, breaking the color line. A self-taught photographer whose personal style reflected a bent for social justice, he documented race relations, civil rights and urban life with his camera.
He also was a composer, writer and filmmaker, adapting his semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” for the screen, and scoring a box-office smash in 1971 with “Shaft,” which is credited with launching the so-called “blaxploitation” movement.
Hickman-Winfield is collaborating with Twin Cities playwright Harrison David Rivers on a drama about Parks’ life, set to open in the fall at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
Before her uncle’s death, she worked with him on the HBO documentary “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks.” Denzel Washington was a producer.
“It wasn’t always easy,” she said. “I almost had a nervous breakdown. If he was upset, I’d get the call. But at the end of it he said, ‘I’m proud of you, baby.’ ”
This exhibition, however, is not about Parks’ life, but his legacy — the people who learned from him, like Shabazz, who researched Parks’ life as a source of guidance, and went on to win the Gordon Parks Foundation Award in 2018.
“What’s gonna happen to black boys? What did I really do?” Parks asked Hickman-Winfield shortly before he died.
She reassured him that nothing he did was in vain. The exhibition is just one of the ways she’s keeping that promise.