In the struggle against life's tragic undertow, few have triumphed as eloquently as Gordon Parks, the dirt-poor kid from Kansas who got a lucky break in St. Paul and turned himself into a 20th-century legend.
Photographer, filmmaker, novelist, poet and composer, Parks (1912-2006) broke ground in all those fields. He was the first African-American to photograph for Life and Vogue magazines and the first to write, direct and score a Hollywood film, 1969's "The Learning Tree," based on his own quasi-autobiographical novel. Next he directed "Shaft," the 1971 feature film whose black detective star launched a genre. He composed and choreographed a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, wrote a symphony and authored at least six books. A 1997 retrospective of his photography traveled to 10 cities, St. Paul among them.
Throughout his long life, Parks relied on what he called his "weapons of choice," the camera and the pen. With them, and his mother's "good common sense," he documented the racism of his era and channeled potential rage and bitterness into unforgettable images.
Weinstein Gallery celebrates his camera work in a moving, tautly edited exhibit of about 40 black-and-white pictures that runs through July 28. Though it merely samples his career, the show conveys the reach of his lens -- from the wind-swept fields of Kansas to the gritty streets of Harlem -- and the depth of his humanity, whether picturing the sensual gloss of Marilyn Monroe's lips or the stoic eyes of an exhausted welfare mother and her four children.
His most famous pictures are here, including a close-up of a sweat-drenched Muhammad Ali and "American Gothic," his iconic portrait of Ella Watson, a Washington, D.C., scrubwoman posed with mop and broom before an American flag, his ironic symbol of a country in which her rights didn't count for much in 1942.
Parks' identification with his big box camera is subtly evident in a 1945 self-portrait. Like much of his early work, it is a high-contrast print characterized by inky blacks and blazing whites. Held shoulder-high, the camera appears to meld with his face and hand, turning its enormous lens into the third eye of a mechanical man.
Capturing an era
The show follows a loose autobiographical arc starting in Fort Scott, Kan., where he was the youngest of 15 children. He headed north when he was 15 and scraped by washing dishes and playing piano in a St. Paul brothel. Magazine photos of Depression-era migrant workers and Dust Bowl refugees sparked his interest in photography, but it was, famously, a St. Paul doyenne who gave him his start.
In that oft-told tale, he was an unemployed husband with two hungry kids in 1940 when he screwed up the courage to enter Frank Murphy's St. Paul clothing store and ask to photograph their exclusive gowns. Improbably, Frank's wife, Madeline, set him up with three models and their best frocks. Only one photo turned out, but the Murphys loved it and his career was launched.
Soon he was in Washington, D.C., where he honed his storytelling skills, letting the camera show the bitter resignation of Ella Watson and the innocence of her grandchildren, two little black kids on a shabby floor hugging a big white doll.
Jumping ahead to 1956, "Black Classroom" depicts a bleak segregation-era school, an unpainted room furnished with bare lightbulbs and a potbellied stove. A poignant image of a lovely black woman in a white lace dress bending over the "Colored Only" drinking fountain drives home the injustices of the day.
Parks' race gave him access to volatile places such as Harlem at a time when white colleagues might have encountered trouble. The show includes a room of fine Harlem photos of street fights, smoke rising from rooftops, Malcolm X preaching, awestruck boys in their best suits, and harrowing scenes of the Fontenelles, a family mired in poverty, dysfunction and despair.
At the same time, Parks' urbanity and skill brought entry into the most exalted artistic and cultural salons. Pictures from that fashionable life fill one of the three galleries, among them portraits of a gaunt Alberto Giacometti among his twiggy sculptures, actress Ingrid Bergman -- in a scandalous affair at the time -- scorned by three Italian crones, Ali boxing, composer Leonard Bernstein under a halo of theater lights, Duke Ellington at the piano, Marilyn in an unhappy vamp, and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt looking as gamine as Audrey Hepburn.
Images on the edge
Parks would have been 100 this year, and his century is fast fading into history, along with its overt segregation and extreme poverty. From our vantage, it may be difficult to recall the latent violence and virulent hatreds of those days. Two pictures bring all that into focus.
"Pool Hall, Fort Scott" (1949) shows five black guys on the threshold of a stuccoed building, all but one with eyes averted, the requisite pose of black Americans at a time when a misunderstood glance or gesture could spark violence.
Next to it hangs "Drugstore Cowboys, Blind River, Ontario" (1955), which catches five white guys in muddy work clothes lounging with attitude against a Canadian drugstore. Three of them eyeball the lens with cocky grins; another glances away as he conspicuously puckers up to spit.
When he clicked that shutter, Parks was probably the only black man within a hundred miles of that grim little mining town. If the guys had bloodied Parks out back, as they look primed to do, some time would have passed before word got out. However suave his images look, Gordon Parks was always balancing on the thin edge of a blade.