Gordon Parks was a fighter. His cause was racial justice. His weapons were his cameras.
If people know anything at all about Parks, it's those three simple facts. They were the core elements of his public persona and, perhaps, of his private self as well. When he joined Life as a staff photographer, in 1948, one of the aspects of the job that appealed to him the most (besides the steady paychecks that his growing family needed) was the potential to reach the magazine's "vast and restless audience" of middle-class white Americans. To a surprising degree, he succeeded, despite the fact that Life's editors rarely thought of themselves as crusaders against racism.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 8-9. [Click on any of the images to see larger versions.]
I've been thinking about "A Man Becomes Invisible" -- the Invisible Man photo-essay -- ever since I saw Contact: Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, and Invisible Man as few weeks ago. Curated by Glenn Ligon, the exhibition is on view at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, in New York, until the end of the week. Contact sheets and dozens of unpublished photos, as well as the images that appeared in the magazine, are part of the show. It's well worth seeing, and it prompted me to buy a copy of the issue of Life in which it appeared -- 25 August 1952, shortly after the book was published. (Old issues of Life are easy to find. You'll run across them in junk shops and antique stores. If that doesn't work, Ebay always has thousands for sale.)
The first thing you notice when looking at "A Man Becomes Invisible" is the power and poetry of Parks' photos. The second is the way that Life's editing of them and the text that accompanies them compromises his (and the book's) message.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 10-11.
Invisible Man is an immensely complicated novel. Parks' photos -- seen as a whole in Ligon's show -- come close to doing it justice. In the pages of Life? The magazine both distorted and bowdlerized it.
The photograph on the essay's first page is one of my favorites. Evocative yet allusive, it captures much of the novel's tone. The final image, an imaginative realization of the underground retreat in which the novel's unnamed protagonist listens to Louis Armstrong records, while being warmed by the glow of 1,369 light bulbs, is also wonderfully eloquent.
The smaller photos -- one of which contains blurred images of a cross, a crucifix, and a skull and another which shows an artificial eye immersed in a glass of water -- certainly reflect elements within Invisible Man. But they create a misleading impression that the novel and its characters -- strange, mystical, bizarre. While Ellison's novel shares much with what would later be called "magical realism," it is fundamentally about what it means to be black in a nation that defines itself in terms of white supremacy.
Life's text transforms what it calls "a sometimes confusing but powerful first novel" into a coming-of-age story, on the one hand, and an anti-Communist polemic, on the other. It describes Invisible Man's protagonist as "a southern Negro... come to New York City, hoping to find a meaning and purpose for his life." Instead he finds "the Brotherhood, a Communistlike [sic] organization." (The Botherhood's leader is the man with the glass eye.) "Too late," Life writes, the protagonist "realizes that the Brotherhood is indifferent to Negroes and is ruthlessly using him for its own purposes." While all this is true, it makes the novel all but unrecognizable.
For three decades, Life provided Parks with a platform on which he could play the role of intermediary between the African-American community and the magazine's tens of millions of readers. But compromise was part of the bargain. Although he shot many photo-essays and wrote a number of articles about race in America, and although he consistently made the case for justice, he could never express himself as fully, freely, and forcefully as he would have wished. Life's agenda wasn't the same as his.
I could stop right here and have a neat little blog post, but there's much more to the story.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 68-69.
It's crucial to note that Parks' Invisible Man photos weren't the only ones that he shot for this issue of Life. He also photographed "Campus Come-ons: College Shops Lure Students with Louder Colors, Dafter Hats" and produced the lead photos for "Calder: His Gyrating 'Mobile' Art Wins International Fame and Prizes," an essay about the artist. This might be surprising, given what I've been saying about him, but he was first and foremost a staff photographer, a guy who had to accept whatever assignments were thrown his way.
It's not likely that he objected to either story. Few photographers would turn down the chance to make a portrait of one of the most famous artists of his era. It's also worth remembering that a young Gordon Parks dreamed of becoming a fashion photographer, that he earned his first professional fee from a fashion shoot, and that he was hired by Life on the strength of a portfolio that he had compiled while free-lancing for Vogue. The magazine's editors wanted a fashion photographer on the staff.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 70-71.
Parks' career is remarkable -- sometimes almost literally incredible -- for many reasons. Not least of them is that in the 1940s and 1950s, during a time when American was a still a rigidly segregated, racially divided society, two leading magazines hired this black man to take pictures of pretty young white women. Parks' relationships with the models may have been professional, not personal, but that didn't keep them from violating one of the country's most cherished taboos. He and they and the magazines did it anyway. Don't ask me to explain. I can't.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 82-83.
Parks was the first African-American photographer to freelance for and join the staff of major magazines. For a long time, he was also the only. He might have been a trailblazer, but he was clearing a path that, from the 1940s to the early 1960s, was covered with weeds.
Life, 25 August 1952, pp. 84-85. [Original caption: This jangling pattern of wires, metal leaves and gongs is a multiple exposure photograph of a Calder mobile in four stages of motion. The exposures were taken at 10-second intervals as the mobile... moved slowly within its 6-foot radius.]
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As a fashion photographer, Parks was a skilled practitioner of the current styles. Unlike, say, Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, he never transcended or transformed the genre. His environmental portraits, however, were usually striking and often brilliant. The photograph of Alexander Calder in his studio (above) doesn't show him at his best. For that, you'll want to see his portrait of Ingrid Bergman, which is an enduring classic.