Icons / March 2018

Gordon Parks: Through the Lens

We examine the work – and exceptional style – of photographer, filmmaker, musician and writer Gordon Parks, whose legacy is being embraced by a new generation of influential artists.

Photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks wears a trench coat, fit with shoulder epaulettes and a turned-up collar, circa 1960.

A recent exhibition on the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks could not be better timed. At New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery through March, Gordon Parks: I Am You Part 2 captures the undimmed relevance of a self-taught pioneer in whose slipstream have followed a generation of genre-resistant black artists. Rapper Kendrick Lamar recreated so many of Parks’ photographs in the video for his song ‘ELEMENT.’ that a separate New York exhibition recently showcased the overlaps between the two. Why is Parks so influential, and how does his style stand up today?

The youngest of fifteen children, Parks grew up on a farm in Kansas, where he attended a segregated school and took an early job as a brothel pianist. Having bought a camera at a thrift store, he won a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government programme aimed at combating poverty in rural America. His 1948 project on Harlem caught the eye of Life, who made him the first black staffer at a magazine with an almost exclusively white readership.

Parks’ ability to frame the struggles of the black working-class in a visual grammar relatable to Life’s privileged audiences made a genuine social impact. ‘American Gothic’ (1942) reworked Grant Wood’s painting of grim-faced white patriots to depict FSA cleaner Ella Watson with a mop and a broom in front of the national flag. A photo negative of the American Dream, it burnishes the exhaustion of a woman whose father and husband had been murdered with the anger of a photographer who had himself been refused service at a cinema, a restaurant and a coat shop earlier that day.

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Contributor

Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.