Muslim Protest, Harlem, NY, 1963/Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks is one of my all-time favorite photographers. He did much more than take beautiful black-and-white pictures, or direct that 1971 movie Shaft. With his wonderful art, he gave the less fortunate a voice. And he took pictures that made people understand (or, at the very least, spark an interest in) situations they knew nothing about. I recently read an essay that Parks wrote for The Joy of Photography, an 80's book that I picked up from a thrift store not too long ago. As I read it, Ferguson kept popping into my head. Parks’ essay brought to my mind all of the people that are there, on the ground, in the midst of the upheaval: the protesters, reporters, policemen, photographers, and youth. Parks was a civil rights activist, and with his photography he campaigned the movement. He’s no longer alive, but his words and his photography still matter a lot today, especially under the current political climate. This essay isn’t so much about civil rights and politics, but rather about Parks’ challenge to use photography as a way of meaningful expression, like many photographers today. And since photography is one of my primary means of expression, this essay helped me understand my own personal struggle to use photography as a way to express myself as well as help people. So if you're a photographer or photojournalist, this essay is totally worth a read. I should also note that I began writing this post before the American photojournalist James Foley was killed by ISIS earlier this week. But I feel that this essay can somehow relate to him because he was also a photographer, like Parks, who travelled to dangerous places in order to share his experiences with Americans. So here it is, "The Personal Style of Gordon Sparks," published in The Joy of Photography by editors of Eastman Kodak Company in 1983:
"I experience, as everyone does, the pleasure and pain that come with living. But my utmost joy comes from the freedom to express my experiences through photography--to capture my feelings, the images of my fellow humans, and the nature of their conditions. I turned to photography not only as a way to make a liking but to pursue my desire to be somebody, so that I might have a voice that people would have reason to listen to.
One day in 1937, while I was a railroad dining car waiter working between St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle, I wandered into the Chicago Art Institute. My reactions to the painting there were similar to those I had to the Fame Security Administration photographs–-those memorable documents of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, John Vachon, rthur Rothstein, John Collier, Jack Delano, Carl Mydans, and others. At a movie that same day I saw a newsreel of Japanese planks bombing the U.S.S. Panay. The cameraman, Norman Ally, stayed at his post to the end, shooting the final belch of steam and smoke that rose when the ship sank beneath the Yangtze River. The grim directness of his film brought me face to face with the real horror of awe. Fascinated, I sat through another show, deciding then and there to become a photographer.
Back in Seattle I went camera hunting. Abe Cohen's pawnshop had better cameras on its dusty shelves, but the one that suited my taste was a Voightlander Brilliant. I liked its fancy name, and when Abe told me it cost only $12.50 I bought it without bothering to inspect it. I was midly surprised when he said I would have to buy film for it; somehow that particular necessary had not entered my mind. We spent the next half hour trying to load it.
That afternoon I shot scenes along the waterfront--buildings, people, signs, whatever struck my eye--confident that my efforts would be masterpieces. At a wharf, trying to photograph seagulls in flights, I fell headfirst into Puget Sound and splashed about, hollering for help, until two firemen fished me out with a long pole. I was dripping wet and shivering, but I held on to my Voightlander Brilliant. Undaunted, I dried myself off, bought two more rolls of film, and took pictures until the sun went down.
Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis developed these rolls, when I picked up my contact prints, a clerk complimented my first efforts. "Keep it up and we'll give you an exhibition," he said. Realizing that I wasn't taking him seriously, he added, "I mean it. You've got a good eye." Still cautious, I thanked him, saying that I would hold him to his word. In the coming weeks I photographed skiers, clouds, women, children, old bearded men, sand dunes, ocean fronts--just about anything I found in front of my camera. Six weeks later Eastman Kodak kept its word: My photographs were exhibited in the window of their downtown store. For me, that's the way it started.
Because of the frustrations of my own early life, I try to share, through my work, the problems of other people around me--regardless of their color or race. I feel a responsibility to point up the plight of those less fortunate than myself--to communicate the abuse of the underprivileged and the insensitivity of those who administer the abuse. Silent watching is not enough, however. I realized long ago that condemnation would have to give way to commitments and that photography was a splendid way to put commitment into proactive. My heart would help my eye select the subject of each photograph.
When a LIFE magazine editor asked me why black people were burning the ghettos, I loaded my camera with film and pointed it at the impoverished black families suffering through the brutally hot summers and the terrible winters. Their plight was evidence enough for anyone who seriously wanted to understand the problem. Yet, when I photograph these people, ensnared in misfortune, my problem is inevitably one of reporting objectively, without allowing my subjective feelings to take over.
My choice of photography for self-expression was not accidental. When I bought my first camera I was aware of its power to communicate my feelings. The problem was to learn to do it simply, so that I could be understood in China as well as in Missouri, and to release the esthetic and emotional impulses trapped inside me. But photography is different for different people, and rightfully so. To some, just the pleasure of catching the image of something that interests them is enough. Thankfully, all painters and poets are not inspired by adversity and all music isn't composed by those who sing only sorrowful songs. Otherwise few mornings would be worth waking to. I try to strike a balance--to affirm the good and condemn the bad…
Many people ask me about "American Gothic," my photograph of the black cleaning woman and her broom and mop. Fired by the racial insults I experienced in Washington D.C., when I first worked there with Roy Stryker in 1942, I found that using my camera against intolerance was not as easy as I thought it should be. To photograph a bigot who refused to serve me in a cafe or to let me enter a theater because I was black wasn't enough. Many bigots have the good fortune to look intelligent. Roy, sensing my frustration, urged me to talk with the black woman who cleaned the office on our floor.
This was a strange suggestion, but after Roy had gone for the evening I searched her out and introduced myself. She was a tall, spinally woman with friendly features. Her hair was swept back from raying temples, and a sharp intelligence shone in her eyes behind steel-rimmer glasses. Our conversation started awkwardly, since neither of us knew why we were talking together. At first it was a meaningless exchange of words. then, as if a dam had broken, she began to tell me her life story. It was a pitiful one--her father was lynched and her husband murdered, both by whites--and it was full of the poverty and hardship so familiar to many American blacks.
I finally asked her to pose for me. When she consented, I positioned her before the American flag, Grant Wood style: broom in one hand, a mop in the other, eyes staring straight into my camera. Stryker took one look at the blowup the following morning and was speechless.
"Well, how do you like it?" I asked eagerly.
He smiles finally. "Keep working with her. Let's see what happens."
I photographed her at home, at work, at church, and just about everywhere she went. "You're learning," Stryker admitted one evening when I laid the photographs before him. "You're showing that you can involve yourself with other people. This woman has done you a great service. I hope you understand this." I did understand.
Since then, I have tried to show--picture by picture, word by word--things as they are: the darkness and the light, the cheerful faces and the disgruntled one. And what I have photographed is, in large part, what I have come to know about our universe and the people who inhabit it. What I have not photographed is what I have yet to learn."
Gordon Parks, New York City