Gordon Parks: Acts of Love
By April Rapier
Gordon Parks. December 13 to February 12, at Pembroke Gallery, 1639 Bissonnet, Houston.
Gordon Parks has been heralded under many banners — writer, poet, composer, filmmaker, choreographer, and photographer. Now in his 70s, he is still an activist, still creating, moving about the country, as he has done since 1937 (when he began photographing). For fifteen years, he worked full-time at Life magazine as a photojournalist. This undoubtedly helped form his style, yet no one discernible manner holds the work in check.
His fashion photography is represented here (as well as portraiture and a stunning landscape. ("Place de la Concorde, Paris. 1951"): some of it is stylized, true to the vision of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet there are many of his so-called fashion images that have far more to do with the soul of the model than what she is wearing.
This is clearest in the portraits of famous people: devoid of sensationalism, they are thoughtful and revealing interiors. Soft and certainly flattering, they represent a classical way of seeing that is eternal For instance, a portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt, dated 1960, shows her posed in the tradition of a formal painting, balanced against a non-competitive background- It is not a portrait of wealth, nor does it deny the reality of circumstance. His touch is non judgmental. Within this image one senses the integration of other disciplines — notably the written word — by the way in which it goes beyond the limitations imposed by the rigidity of a portrait sitting.
Another, "Spanish Fashion 1950." doesn't have the dated feel that signals the eventual demise of most fashion photography — it is time-less. The filmmaker in Parks also influences his photographic style; he is able to witness the "performance" as though he is invisible. A portrait of Ingrid Bergman, "Stromboli 1949," brings to mind the work of Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli. Bergman looms large in the foreground, yet is oblivious to his presence. In the background, old ladies dressed in black are equally unaware of her. It is a haunting moment, more so because he participates at a distance-Parks says that being black profoundly influences his style, yet he feels that one has no notion of his race when viewing the pictures. His most recent film, Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, is about enslavement — what he calls "America's Holocaust" — but he does not limit his concern to black issues. A moving photograph titled "Flavio I960" chronicles his intervention in the life of a dying twelve-year-old Brazilian boy. That Flavio is now 30 is an obvious source of pride to Parks. Nor is he sure that he is more sensitive to any given situation than a white photographer might be. The notion of a black sensibility means little to him: he isn't alienated by defensiveness. The photographs are acts of love.