Gordon Parks, photographer who chronicled African-American life, the focus of shows in Washington, DC and Berlin

The National Gallery has acquired 173 of his pictures to its collection, while a survey of his work starts its tour of Germany


The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, has added 173 photographs by the American photographer Gordon Parks to its collection as part of an acquisition of 304 works from the now closed Corcoran Gallery of Art. Many of the works will be shown at the National Gallery as part of the exhibition Gordon Parks: The New Tide, 1940-50 (11 November 2018-18 February 2019), which surveys his early work.

Parks (1912-2006) was the kind of photographer whose work ranged widely. He chronicled crime in American cities like Chicago, where he visited a morgue to document the aftermath of murder. He photographed the March on Washington in 1963, for which 250,000 people came out to hear Martin Luther King Jr give his “I Have a Dream” speech. He did high fashion shoots for Life and Vogue magazines on the streets of New York, reported on segregation in the American South and visited Alexander Calder in his Connecticut studio. He even followed Muhammad Ali to Miami in 1970 to profile the fighter just before his first match in more than three years following his suspension for refusing to go to Vietnam.

Pictures from these projects and others are the subject of Gordon Parks: I Am You, 1934-78, an exhibition of around 150 vintage prints, contact sheets, magazines and films at the C/O Gallery in Berlin. An exhibition catalogue, published by Steidl, comes out in English this month and a German-language version has already been published.

The show is something of a homecoming for the photographer. Before the C/O Gallery opened in its current home in 2014, the building it occupies was known as the Amerika Haus, which was a cultural arm of the US government. It hosted an exhibition of Parks’s photographs in 1989, which coincided with other presentations of his work across Germany.

Although the current show and book cover a large slice of Parks’s career, Peter Kunhardt, Jr, the director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, stresses that neither are entirely comprehensive. “I don’t think you can ever really encompass everything,” he says. Instead, I Am You (which was organised by Felix Hoffmann, head curator at the C/O Berlin Foundation) looks at the ways in which Parks humanised his many subjects.

“The show’s title is taken from a passage that Gordon wrote for his project on the Fontenelles in Harlem in 1967,” Kunhardt says, referring to the family Parks profiled in a Life magazine photo-essay about poverty in black American neighbourhoods. Along with his pictures—one shows the hungry family clustered for warmth around an open oven on Thanksgiving Day and another depicts them seeking relief at their local “poverty board”—Parks wrote an article in which he related the Fontenelles to the magazine’s readers. “For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom,” he wrote. “Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself.”

When the show’s run in Berlin is over (it closes 4 December), it travels to the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung in Munich (7 February 2017-7 May 2017), Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (16 June 2017-6 September 2016) and the Deutsche Börse Group in Eschborn, Germany (21 September 2017-7 January 2018).


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