Mysterious Gordon Parks' Photo Leads to Exhibit of his Work

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 3, 2015

Nobody knew a thing about the Gordon Parks photograph owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's permanent collection: Who was that couple standing beneath the movie marquee and why hadn't they taken their seats inside out of the rain?

The picture, "Untitled (Outside the Liberty Theater),"a gelatin silver print, is very like the copious amount of his work that was published starting in 1948 in the then-reigning photo magazine Life (where he was the first African-American photographer to be hired full-time).

A mystery solved

But this one rang no bells.

The photograph was taken only six years after Parks had bought a Voigtlander Brilliant he spotted in a pawn shop window, his very first camera for which he beat down the asking price to $7.50. He started taking photos in 1940 but not without pratfalls: while attempting to shoot some flying seagulls, he and the loaded camera had fallen into Puget Sound. Once that roll was dried out and developed, it was clear that he had a gift for narration and composition.

Skip to some 70 years later, when the MFA is busy annotating the work it owns by African American artists for a publication "Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts" (now available at the museum's shops and elsewhere).

It fell to Karen Haas, the museum's Lane Curator of Photographs to solve the mystery of their single Gordon Parks photograph.

Her proactive and increasingly emotional research in archives and beyond in which she becomes more and more appalled at the truth of segregation has resulted in the powerhouse of an exhibit Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott, now open to the public through Sept. 15, 2015 in the Robert and Jane Burke Gallery at the MFA in the Art of the Americas wing. The exhibit, sponsored by Northern Trust, is organized by the MFA, Boston in partnership with The Gordon Parks Foundation and presented with support from the Dr. Lawrence H. and Roberta Cohn Exhibition Fund.

'Like a bad dream'

All of the exhibition's 42 photographs, excepting the mystery photo, are shown through the courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation, the Pleasantville, New York based organization that preserves the photographer's legacy, and all were shot by Parks for an assigned Life magazine photo essay on the realities of life under segregation in 1950. The article that never ran because, at least on two occasions, fast-breaking stories took precedence.

So many of the social message photographs by one of the most celebrated African American artists of his time, Gordon Parks (1912-2006), are well known to the public. You could say they have become iconic, such as "American Gothic, Washington D.C." (1942), depicting Ella Watson standing with her mops and pails in front of the American flag. She cleans government buildings, but in the days of Jim Crow, segregation isolates her from the bounty of the American dream.

Parks posed and took the photograph while on a Julius Rosenwald Fund recipient to apprentice under Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration's Washington, D. C. program and it was Stryker himself who urged Parks to shadow Mrs. Watson through her daily life to involve himself in her problems.

As Parks would later relate, "what she told me was like a bad dream."

Leaning on her mop handle she talked about a father lynched by Southern mobsters, a mother's untimely death, marriage and pregnancy while in high school, her husband shot two days before her daughter's birth...and on and on. She was bringing up two granddaughters on wages barely enough for one.

The photograph proved too hot for a government-funded program even merely residing in its files, though, so Parks himself placed it in a Brooklyn newspaper instead.

A homecoming

However, now Parks was schooled in how to relate to people he wanted to photograph and he used this training when he returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas and then to other Midwestern cities to track down and photograph each of his childhood classmates.

The son of a quiet tenant farmer and his strong devout wife, and the youngest of their 15 children, Parks's mother died when he was 14 and though he moved in with an older brother in another city, he was thrown out on his own before he could graduate from high school.

In an interview that ran in the Fort Scott Tribune, MFA curator Haas says, "in 1950 Gordon Parks was offered by Life Magazine to show a story on segregated schools. Kansas is at the epicenter of this. It's just before Brown versus the Board of Education (the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in public schools).

"Life Magazine gave him the job of finding his 11 elementary classmates," Haas continues. "He goes back to Fort Scott a very different man from the scared and saddened boy at the death of his mother. He is beginning to make a name for himself."

Historical resonances

The story Parks tells with these photographs touches on the Great Migration of blacks from Southern farms to Northern cities, as well as, segregation, as he finds only one of his classmates still in the rural Fort Scott. Over the next two weeks, he drives from city to city on his search. Of the others that he's able to locate, three live in Chicago's Southside black neighborhood. An accompanying catalog for the exhibit (which will be out in a month or so) includes an essay by Isabel Wilkerson, whose "The Warmth of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" won a Pulitzer for its account of this watershed moment in our history.

The lives of the classmates - six girls and five boys who graduated from the segregated Plaza School in 1927, in what was then a town of 10,000 people - present a miniature snapshot of African-American aspiration and struggle in the years before Brown v. Board of Education

Haas relates, "one poignant story is of Mazel Morgan Hubbard, who Parks found married to a Willy Hubbard. He visits the couple in their dreary rooms and decides to give Mazel some money because they were so destitute.

"Gordon takes the money out of his wallet, and Willy, who's been lying on the bed who's described as ill, suddenly is much better... goes to the liquor store, spends all the money and they have a party."

"The saddest part," Haas comments, "is when Parks goes to leave, apparently Willy pulls a gun on Gordon and Gordon has to give him all the rest of the money in his wallet."

Parks had returned with foreboding to his home town, "the place I attack in dreams some nights, echoes from the past, painful things to be remembered... the racial insults and brutalities. Yet, the prairie is still in me, in my talk and manners."

Labels enable the visitor to "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott" to read the histories of each photograph, who the people are and a bit about where life has taken them.

As for the man behind the lens himself, he once famously said, "I choose my camera as a weapon against all of the things I dislike about America-poverty-racism-discrimination."

Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott, now open to the public through Sept. 15, 2015 in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website.