Gordon Parks’ 1956 photograph of a black woman and her child under a department store sign that says COLORFUL ENTRY is famous for a reason. It’s an elegant image, with a zigzag composition that carefully directs the gaze, and yet it is also painful as it finds a way to make the structural racism of the American South so visible. Viewers might want to watch this photograph forever because of its lush color; they also feel like they want to look away immediately because his subject is so appalling. One detail of this searing image is often overlooked: the woman’s panties, a strap from which hangs down her arm, puncturing her majestic appearance.
As the late art historian Maurice Berger recounts in A choice of weapons: inspired by the parks, an HBO documentary that debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York today, The Image never fared well with its subject, Joanne Wilson. She made sure to always be presentable, because she believed that if she wasn’t, no one would take her seriously. Letting her underwear show undone her carefully constructed figure. “I understand how she felt, but I don’t think Gordon would have told her to adjust the strap because, to him, that represented something remarkable,” said Berger, adding, “You can’t be a mother and a human, and see this photo and not feel any drama and affiliation with Mrs. Wilson. “
A choice of weapons suggests that, with his photography and film, Parks was able to create images of the black community that allowed him to be seen on their terms, and that is why his work is important. In this informative and incisive documentary directed by John Maggio, Parks’ keen sense of intimacy and identification takes center stage. But the film doesn’t dull the strength of Parks’ footage, it also shows how much of a weapon his camera was, in a sense. The parks saw it that way too. In a manifesto for author Ralph Ellison, he explained how a 35mm camera could in some ways be more effective than a 9mm cannon. And what a powerful gun, too. As filmmaker Spike Lee puts it: “It was a fucking bazooka! It wasn’t a six-shot or a rifle.
Photography was a saving grace for Parks. As a child, he had “a typically black experience,” as Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson puts it. During his education in Kansas in the 1910s and 20s, Parks attended separate schools; the white boys threw him into a river, to see if he could swim. He quickly turned to photography, buying a camera from a pawnshop when he was in his 20s. His kitchen became his workshop and he transformed tin cans into lighting equipment. As artist Jamel Shabazz puts it: “Lucky for him, he was able to get this camera.”
The Gordon Parks we know now emerged during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when an organization known as the Farm Security Administration (one of the many short-lived government agencies created by the New Deal) began to operate. hire photographers to photograph impoverished communities across the United States. As most turned their lenses toward sick farmers and their families, Parks memorablely photographed Ella Watson, a black woman who cleaned FSA offices – “America’s backbone,” says the secretary of the FSA. Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch III in the movie. In a brilliant 1942 image of Parks playing on Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting american gothic, Watson is pictured in front of the American flag holding a broom. The image emphasizes its verticality, its ability to stand still, even in the midst of all the meticulous work.
Parks’ big break came with the 1948 series “Harlem Gang Leader,” which offered an empathetic look at the locals. In these photos, children dance in the midst of water spurting from fire hydrants, and a member of the Midtowners gang grabs a wall. Life, then among the most widely read magazines in the United States, took up the photographic essay and soon ended up publishing many more by Parks. In the late 1960s, Parks’ work for Life had given him access to the upper echelons of society, photographing Gloria Vanderbilt on several occasions and even becoming his friend.
Some in the black community were suspicious of Parks because he had come close to a white-run post like Life. As Parks recalls in archival footage, when sent to photograph Malcolm X in the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, asked Parks, “Why are you working for the devils?” white? To which Parks replied, “Well, have you ever heard of getting behind the iron horse and finding out what’s going on?” Muhammad then said, “I am not buying this.” But Parks finally convinced him with the photos he took of Malcolm X, whom he imagined as a human being in addition to a revolutionary who divides. Few at the time were able to visualize both sides of Malcolm X.
A choice of weapons brings in a star cast, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and retired basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to discuss the importance of Parks. (Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Deal and Alicia Keys, who own the largest collection of Parks works in the world, served as executive producers.) However, their interviews tend to focus on only a few aspects of the work. of Parks, and the film downplays some of the more complex parts of the artist’s rich and multifaceted work.
Little weight is given to the formal aspects of Parks’ photography. Her choice of color, for example, is tagged as a way of portraying that “this was your America, right now” by Stevenson. In fact, it was that, and more: Back then, color photography was still branded by artists like Walker Evans as unartistic, the makings of advertising. Parks was well aware of this when he began photographing in both formats, and his images played a role in elevating color photography to serious art.
Other crucial facts are also overlooked or overlooked altogether. Parks’ remarkable fashion photography, which was the subject of a landmark exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York in 2018, is overlooked, though it has also had an impact on generations of young black artists, such as critic Antwaun Sargent pointed out in his 2019 book The new black avant-garde.[Antwaun Sargent discusses his book The New Black Vanguard.]
And then there’s the question of Parks’ small but punchy filmography. Tree (1971), his film about a detective in Harlem, is credited in A choice of weapons as being the first Hollywood film by a black director. This thriller may have helped spur a genre now known as blaxploitation, but first doesn’t mean better. It’s that of Melvin van Peebles Sweet Sweetback song Baadasssss, released the same year, which is now considered by many to have had more influence, thanks to its harsher and less commercial description of racism. (Even still, the independently distributed Van Peebles film ended up grossing over Tree made at the box office.) All of this is not mentioned, as are the reviews that Tree perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Even though the nuances of Parks’ work are lost in A choice of weapons, the documentary always makes his point, and it does so with passion and grace: that his photographs have enabled others to take similar images. As proof, the film opens with the words of Devin Allen, whose photograph of a Black Lives Matter protest in Baltimore made the cover of a 2015 issue of Time. Taking this photo Allen said, “For the first time I understood what Gordon Parks was talking about: that the camera is a real weapon. I realized how powerful I am with a camera in my hand.