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Art Editorial

deptstore.jpg Gordon Parks retrospective at Side

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a remarkable figure – a photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker (he would kickstart the Blaxploitation series of films with Shaft in 1971) – and as part of Tyneside’s Freedom City 2017 events, Side Gallery are presenting some of his key works that highlight the struggle African Americans endured while fighting for equality in the United States.

Images can capture the electric shock of racism more than words ever can. One only has to look at Gordon Parks’ 1956 image, Department Store, to feel that jolt of revulsion. The picture depicts a young black woman and her little girl on the streets of Alabama. Above them a neon sign indicates the entrance to the store: “Colored Entrance”, the crude divisiveness of the apartheid system blazing unapologetically above their heads. It’s just one of the powerful images being shown at this exhibition which highlights some of Parks’ key works. His photographic career began in earnest in the early 1940s with the legendary Farm Security Administration photography unit. In the struggle for social justice his camera became what he referred to as his weapon of choice against racism and social inequalities.

In 1956, as the only African American photographer on the staff of the hugely influential Life magazine, he documented the impact of racial segregation in the American South. In the 1960s he explored the turbulence of the different political strategies of those involved in the struggle for social freedom: from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s participation in the March on Washington to the self-declared revolutionary approach of the Black Panthers. Parks’ focus on the question of social change was unequivocal.

In late 1967, and as a direct response to the wave of riots that broke out across America, Parks also began documenting the Fontenelles, an African American family living in Harlem and trapped in extreme conditions of poverty. This extended documentary project became a remarkable 16-page photo feature for Life magazine in March 1968. It was a ground breaking essay that provides a keystone through which to read Parks’ photography throughout this exhibition. An outstanding body of work, it illustrates the way he saw and portrayed the family – and others: not as objects of journalistic scrutiny but as unique individuals participating in the telling of their own tale. The heartache, emotional and moral dilemmas that he faced in trying to tell the story of the Fontenelle family would never leave him. He stayed in contact with the family and would later recall that, “the truth of their suffering lay ahead, and it would be terrifying and sorrowful.”

As mentioned above, Parks’ also scored notable firsts in his role as a filmmaker too. Indeed with his 1969 film The Learning Tree, he became the first black director of a Hollywood film, and in 1971 he directed the hugely influential Shaft. Curator Mark Sealy developed a Gordon Parks retrospective at London’s Photographers’ Gallery and the British Film Institute in 1993, which Parks himself attended. Sealy was not aware at the time of the 20 minute documentary Diary of a Harlem Family that Parks made in 1968 for the US’s Public Service Broadcasting Service. This photo-film will be presented on a loop throughout the Side Gallery exhibition. “We don’t think the film or the photographs of A Harlem Family have been shown in the UK before as a series,” says Sealy. “It forms the heart of this exhibition. At the height of Parks’ success he was asked by the editors of Life if he could explain the riots that were taking place across the country. The fact that he chose to do this through a focus on a single family is extraordinary in itself. He showed them struggling to cope with the relentless pressure of survival, documenting the minute details of their deprivation, the way the cold of the New York winter reduced their lives – the experiences he saw as fuelling the explosions of discontent in the cities that overwhelmingly took place in the summer. Parks never forgot his own experiences of poverty and cold. Working in the context of Life, he chose to use the position he achieved to represent his community in the struggle of social change.”

Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons, until 17 December, Side Gallery, 5-9 Side, Newcastle. Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm, free. amber-online.com