Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Captured for Posterity

Tonight was #3 of 6 dates with a multi-talented dead man.

After twice seeing "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott" at the VMFA, I was ready for the lecture at University of Richmond entitled, "Gordon Parks from Kansas to New York: A Conversation."

Well...conversation may be a bit of a stretch - it was more of presentation, presentation, questions from moderator, questions from audience - but it did flesh out my knowledge of Parks and provide a bit of mental stimulation after an unusually intense day.

While Peter Kunhart, Jr., the executive director of the Parks Foundation, actually knew Parks (his grandfather was an editor at Life and a personal friend of Parks - he had a photo to prove it), it was Karen Haas, the photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from whence the show originated, who brought unadulterated enthusiasm for everything Parks to the talk.

Rarely, she stressed, does a curator have such a fabulous opportunity to dig deep into a particular segment of an artist's work as she had done with the previously unpublished Fort Scott photographs and artist's notes.

As she pointed out in far more ladylike language, that's the kind of assignment curators have wet dreams about.

She'd even roped in her husband to do a road trip to retrace the places where Parks had gone as Life's first black staff photographer to capture his elementary school classmates as part of an assignment to honestly depict segregation issues.

It seems that while the magazine claimed to be pro-integration, they hadn't actually covered the subject in its pages before. In a stroke of brilliance, they sent a black photographer who took days getting comfortable with his subjects before shooting them.

What Parks discovered was that 11 of the 12 had left Fort Scott as part of southern blacks' great migration to northern cities in hopes of a better life. What Haas discussed was how nuanced were Parks' photos of these migratory families in the years just before the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement began.

The photographer's goal, she explained, was to open the minds of Life's mostly white middle-class readership and he planned to do that with portraits of families in front of their homes (always in all-black neighborhoods), couples eating dinner, posed on couches and children playing piano with families singing along.

The latter was to be especially meaningful to whites because it showed the stability and strength of black middle class families engaged in cultured activities, no doubt images that would have been eye-openers for racist readers.

Except the piece never ran because of the little matter of the Korean conflict breaking out and taking precedence in the magazine (tell me about it - an assignment I turned in last March just ran this week).

But Parks' words and images never ran until this exhibition was mounted.

The importance of Fort Scott in shaping Parks came full circle during the Q & A period when a guy from Fort Scott pointed to a photo on the screen of black children standing on a platform behind rows of white people in seats watching a baseball game.

"I played on that field and my Dad coached me there," he shared, pointing at the image. "And in Fort Scott, Gordon Parks was like a god."

Fortunately for me, I have three more dates with that god.

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