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.