Photographer, filmmaker, poet and novelist Gordon Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93. But the 1998 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement continues to exert a centrifugal force on American culture, well into the 21st century.
Kendrick Lamar sampled Parks’ photographs for his music video “Element.” And a mesmerizing art exhibit, concentrating on Parks’ first decade of visual work, is now open to all at the Cleveland Museum of Art through June 30. There is no admissions charge.
The National Gallery of Art curated “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950.” It features many iconic images, perhaps none more arresting than Ella Watson in 1942 in a polka-dot dress, a charwoman who cleaned government buildings in Washington, D.C. She stands before a flag, with her mop and broom inverted. Much later Parks retitled the portrait “American Gothic.”
The photographer gives the viewer context, depicting Watson’s family, religious life and neighborhood in his first extended photo story, a craft he would hone becoming one of Life Magazine’s most important photo-essayists.
The exhibit features Langston Hughes in Chicago in 1941 in a somber door-and-window portrait taken during the Chicago Black Arts Renaissance, and Ingrid Bergman appearing haunted in Italy. The collection includes fashion shots and Tuskegee Airmen and a 17-year-old Harlem gang leader named “Red” whose gravitas and charisma translate across decades.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all kinds of wrongs,” Parks famously wrote in 1999. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Museum-goers will have the chance to consider Parks and his creations in a Salon Talk at 7 p.m. Friday, May 24 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Professor Gillian Johns of Oberlin College, Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive director of Twelve Literary Arts, and Tonika Johnson, a Chicago activist and photographer, will reflect on Parks’ genius and his ongoing relevance today.