Uncovering Forgotten Images from Gordon Parks’ Early Years

The legacy of Gordon Parks is as significant as any photographer.

The legendary street photographer and activist called his camera his “weapon of choice,” and his harrowing images focussing on the lives of persecuted minorities in America, in particular the black community, continue to be some of the most significant cultural records that we have spanning Parks’ 65-year career. Parkes’s career was remarkably diverse, with street photography, photojournalism, writing, directing and composing all fields that he excelled in. The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950, is an upcoming photo book that explores the formative years of Gordon Parks’ career; a remarkable collection of images that lays bare the great photographer’s early style and influences.

Boy with crutches, Washington D.C., 1942.

Gordon Parkes grew up in Kansas in the Mid-West, the youngest of a staggering 15 children, and he bought his first camera in 1937. By the early 40s, Parkes had become an integral part of Chicago’s Black Renaissance (also known as the Black Chicago Renaissance) that was occurring at the time. The movement was centred around the South Side Community Art Centre, and through his association with the movement, Parks met painters, writers, poets and more, including notable names like Charles White and Langston Hughes. Coming into contact with such characters inspired Parkes to use his camera as his means of documenting the struggles of poverty and persecution that affected him and his community.

American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942.

From Chicago, Parkes won the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, a prestigious grant that afforded him to move to Washington D.C. He worked for the government in various departments, including the Office of War Information during the Second World War. Parks was a completely self-taught photographer, and within a decade of picking up a camera he’d cemented himself as an accomplished and ambitious photographer and photojournalist. He worked in New York and Paris for Ebony and Glamour magazines, and even became the first African American to become the photographer at the prestigious Life magazine in 1949.

Captain Knox, Selfridge East, Michigan, 1943.

In the 50s, Parkes gradually turned his attention to filmmaking, first consulting on numerous Hollywood films before moving into directing. He directed a series of documentaries on the trials of black life in the ghetto, and when he directed The Learning Tree in 1969 (which he also wrote), Parks became Hollywood’s first major black director. Parks also went on to direct the original Shaft, a film that controversially kicked off a range of films that were labelled “blaxploitation” for perpetuating some of the stereotypes of black, particularly male, lives.

The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950 is the first time the formative, and lesser known work of Parks’ illustrious career has been collated. The book presents new research into Parks’ work, and also features pictures that’ve been lost or forgotten over time. The 40s was the period that Gordon Parks came to terms with the social, cultural and political elements of society that were occurring all around him, and the photos taken during the period are a fascinating document of the fledgeling years of what would go on to become a socially and historically significant career. From the first photos that Parks had published in Minnesota, through the Chicago Black Renaissance, to his work for America’s biggest and most influential photo magazines, the book is a worthy addition to even the most refined of shelves.

Keep your eye out for the release of the book and supporting exhibition, coming soon.

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