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Book Review: Segregation Story


Book Review Segregation Story By Gordon Parks Reviewed by Blake Andrews Gordon Parks packed many pursuits into his 93 years. Musician, writer, activist, film director, and of course photographer. A self-trained shooter, he bootstrapped his way up from meager means to an acclaimed career. He worked initially with Roy Stryker's FSA and later with Life where he pioneered a twenty year career as the magazine's first African-American staff photographer.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks.
Steidl, 2014.
 
Segregation Story
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Segregation Story
Photographs by Gordon Parks
Steidl, 2014. 112 pp., illustrated throughout, 10x11½".


Gordon Parks packed many pursuits into his 93 years. Musician, writer, activist, film director, and of course photographer. A self-trained shooter, he bootstrapped his way up from meager means to an acclaimed career. He worked initially with Roy Stryker's FSA and later with Life where he pioneered a twenty year career as the magazine's first African-American staff photographer. Since his death in 2006, his work has enjoyed a posthumous revival, spurred primarily by The Gordon Parks Foundation, which has smartly curated his work into an ever-circulating flotilla of international exhibitions; and Steidl, which has produced a series of critical monographs to accompany the shows.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks. Steidl, 2014.

The recent titles have come at a rapid pace, making up for the relative paucity of monographs published during Parks' life. They've investigated his entire oeuvre, and in particular his powerful Life magazine photo essays from 1950s and 1960s that explored African-American culture during the civil rights era. For each of the past few years Steidl has dedicated one book to a Parks Life story. The treatment is similar to a reissued vinyl classic, with new edit, remastering, and outtakes to accompany the original material in fresh packaging. The first was 2012's A Harlem Family 1967. This was followed a year later by The Making Of An Argument. On the docket later this year is Back To Fort Scott. The current title, and one of the most interesting, is Segregation Story, a re-examination of a Parks photo essay first published the September 24th issue of Life, 1956.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks. Steidl, 2014.

Parks was assigned to document the daily activities of an African-American family in the south. He found the Thorntons of Mobile, Alabama, an extended family with nine children and nineteen grandchildren, and cast them as central characters to exemplify the broader societal tensions felt by blacks across the region. The photos were published originally under the title The Restraints: Open and Hidden. Along with short blocks of text by Robert Wallace, Parks carefully mixed portrait, documentary, and general lifestyle photojournalism to depict a subculture living close to the land without many luxuries. The photos show puddles and peeling paint and bare feet and laundry lines. Family members gather on a porch or gather in the shade after church. Parks' empathy for his subjects comes through strongly, bundled in a quiet mastery of color and composition.

In some ways the photos are not much different than earlier FSA images of rural poverty, images with which Parks was very familiar. But Parks' aim in 1956 was very different than FSA. These are photographs of racial isolation. The Thorntons turned out to be a perfect case study. They were an extended family diverse in age and prospects, a representative sampling of black society. But regardless of profession or standing — sharecropper, teacher, woodcutter, professor — every family member was trapped in the same societal box, and felt equally the brunt of divided society.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks. Steidl, 2014.

Everyone in the Thorntons' lives was black. Virtually everyone in the book is black. Out of seventy-one images in the book, only four show whites, and their circumstances are telling. One shows black children looking through a fence at a white amusement park that feels very distant. One depicts a young child smiling near gunplay. The third — the cover shot — shows a white woman staring stoically past her black nanny holding her baby. The last, not by Parks, is the original Life cover in which the article appeared. It shows a smiling white model, the public face of the Eisenhower boom years. Segregation Story indeed. Parks' essay showed — at least those willing to look — what the other side looked like. His photos depicted a world in the shadows, living parallel to white society but separate from it and largely hidden from its inhabitants. Looking at the photos almost 50 years later, the viewer feels privy to a secret world.

As the only African-American staff shooter at Life, Gordon Parks was uniquely qualified for the project. Not only was he able to gain access to the Thorntons, which would've been difficult for white photographers, he felt closely the circumstances of his subjects' lives. He had attended segregated schools as a kid. He knew it firsthand. The photo essay put both him and his subjects at risk. Several of the Thorntons were harassed for their involvement, and Parks was in the same boat. He traveled with a bodyguard, then retreated quickly to New York after completing the assignment. "Not until [the plane] roared upward did I breathe easily," he wrote in his journal.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks. Steidl, 2014.

The original story is republished here in its entirety. But it's not the main focus. It's merely a rear appendix in the back. All of the original photographs — thought to be lost for many years before being discovered in 2011 at the bottom of a storage box — have been given a thorough tune up and polishing, amended with new additions, then offered a bright new life and modern treatment. Photo reproductions have a come a long way in fifty years, and the contrast between old and new renditions is as glaring as one might expect. The magazine reproductions from 1956 are muddy, off-palette, and cropped to suit the needs of the article. They work well as historical document but for those interested in Parks as pure photographer, the cleaned up versions are much easier on the eyes. The photos are uncropped as Parks presumably visualized them, and the colors spot on. Steidl has achieved a fine balance between contemporary clarity and old fashioned Kodachrome tonality. The portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton is a wonderful example, with colors so original it seems like a monochrome image that's been colorized.

Segregation Story. By Gordon Parks. Steidl, 2014.

The book's design is carefully considered. The cover's title is in understated old-fashioned typeface so as not to overshadow the power of image below. In some ways that cover photograph says it all. A white woman and her black nanny, sitting side by side and staring into space, each in her own separate world. Segregation Story.

Like the previous Parks books by Steidl, this one is published in conjunction with a traveling exhibit. It's on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through June 7th before traveling to other venues including Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, where I will definitely see it.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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