Gordon Parks: The Original Renaissance Man


By Rashid Booker

An African-American Photographer and Composer, Motion Picture Director and Producer, Mr. Gordon Parks “Gordon Parks" spent the majority of his professional career at the crossroads of the glamorous and the ghetto – two extremes the noted photographer knew well.  Perhaps best recognized for his works chronicling the African-American experience, Parks was also an accomplished fashion photographer.

Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks provides a revealing look at the diversity and breadth of Park’s most potent imagery. Featuring 73 works specifically selected by Parks for the photographic collection of the Los Angeles-based Capital Group, Bare Witness divulges heart wrenching images, iconic moments, celebrities and slices of everyday life.

Born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks, who died in 2006 at age 93, was an African American photographer who began working professionally in the 1930′s. Parks tackled the harsh truth and dignity of the black urban and rural poor in the United States.

He photographed aspects of the Civil Rights movements and individuals associated with the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. For nearly 25 years, from 1948 to 1972, he served as staff photographer for Life magazine. He also established himself as a foremost fashion photographer, providing spreads for respected magazines such as Vogue. Bare Witness features many of Park’s most memorable images such as “American Gothic.”

Taken during Park’s brief time with the Farm Security Agency, the photograph depicts a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other.

Also included in the exhibition is a series of photos from Park’s most famous Life magazine essay about Flavio da Silva, a malnourished and asthmatic boy living in a Rio de Janerio slum. Portraits of Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Alexander Calder, Ingrid Bergman, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X among others will also be on view.

 “Whether photographing celebrities or common folk, children or the elderly, Harlem gang leaders or fellow artists, Parks brought his straightforward, sympathetic ear and mind to bear witness to late 20th century civilization,” commented Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Cantor Arts Center and organizer of the exhibition.

“His photographs balance the dichotomies of black and white, rich and poor, revealing his strengths and struggles as an artist and a man.”

In addition to his documentary and fashion photography, Parks was a filmmaker, author, musician and publisher. He was the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree” in 1969, which was based on his early life experiences.

He subsequently directed the popular action films “Shaft” and “Shaft’s Big Score.” He was a founder and editorial director of Essence magazine and wrote several autobiographies, novels and poems.

In 1988, he received the National Medal of Arts award and throughout his lifetime was the recipient of 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and England.  

 “Parks was a renaissance man whose career embodied the American ideal of equality and whose art was deeply personal.

This exhibition is an exciting opportunity for Museum visitors to experience the poignant images he made over five decades,” commented Rebecca Senf, Norton Curator of Photography, Phoenix Art Museum.

The exhibition includes an illustrated catalogue with an essay by photography scholar Maren Stange who writes frequently on modern American culture.

This exhibition has already enjoyed a five-venue tour, where the photographs were received with great excitement.

The exhibition has been revived for a final showing at the Phoenix Art Museum.

 "Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks' was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by generous support from The Capital Group Foundation, the Cantor Arts Center’s Hohbach Family Fund, and Cantor Arts Center’s Members.” 


Books by Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks Filmography

Rashid Booker


Note: The exhibition 'Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks' has been discontinued. For current exhibitions and more on Gordon Parks visit the Gordon Parks Foundation website at gordonparksfoundation.org