In celebration of what would be photographer Gordon Parks’ 100th birthday, the Gordon Parks Foundation – along with the Museum of Modern Art in New York – threw quite a party, drawing such big names as actress Sarah Jessica Parker, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and photographer Annie Liebowitz.
In Southwest Minneapolis Weinstein Gallery is hosting its own celebration, offering a more intimate look at Parks wide-ranging photographs.
Parks had a career that any photographer would dream of, but it came from the roughest beginnings. Born in Kansas, he was forced to drop out of high school when his mother died, and moved to St. Paul to live with his aunt. However her husband kicked him out shortly thereafter, leaving him homeless until he found work, first as a piano player in a brothel, and then later as a waiter on a train.
As the Minnesota Historical Society details, Parks loved to tell the story of how he got his start as a fashion photographer:
It was 1938 when he walked into Frank Murphy’s, an exclusive women’s clothing store in downtown St. Paul, and asked if they needed anyone to take photos of the store’s runway models. He didn’t mention that he didn’t own a camera and that his only experience with models was a recent perusal of Vogue magazine. Frank Murphy turned him down, but on his way out of the store, Mrs. Murphy suggested that Parks return after the store closed. “Later I asked her why she took a chance on me, and she said she had just had an argument with Frank and was trying to get under his skin,” Parks recalled. “Actually, I think she was just a woman who had a great heart.”
From Frank Murphy’s he eventually moved to Chicago, and went on to work with the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information, Vogue, Glamour, and for over two decades with Life magazine. He excelled at documenting the hardships of race and poverty.
Poverty Board, 1968
All of the more than forty images on display at the Weinstein were printed during Parks’ lifetime, and came to the Weinstein from the Gordon Parks Foundation. They feature portraits of Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, and Gloria Vanderbilt, as well as street photography of life in Harlem, landscapes and war scenes.
As Weinstein Gallery director Leslie Hammons put it, “he was around for everything.”
His images reveal a photographer both insatiably curious and deeply nuanced. His portrait of Ingrid Bergman, in the midst of her affair with Roberto Rossellini, captures both how society was judging her, and her own unease.
Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, Italy, 1949
It’s also important to remember while looking at these photographs that they represent just one facet of a multi-talented man. He was a writer, a composer, and the director of the classic film “Shaft.”
At a time when so much was judged by the color of one’s skin, Parks managed to gain people’s trust and tell stories that laid bare the human condition. Sadly, many of those social ills are still prevalent today.
Self Portrait, 1945