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Book Reviews: A Harlem Family 1967

A Harlem Family 1967. Photographs by Gordon Parks.
Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.
A Harlem Family 1967
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

A Harlem Family 1967
Photographs by Gordon Parks.
Steidl & Partners, 2013. Hardbound. 112 pp., 100 tritone illustrations, 10x11-1/2".

A Harlem Family 1967 takes its name from Gordon Parks' photo essay first published in LIFE magazine as part of a series on urban poverty and race. In its look back at the desperate struggles of the Fontenelle family at that place and time, this exhibition catalog is a certain object lesson in context. Its page by page reproduction of the original magazine spreads delineates how Parks' photographs were originally seen, how images and words were crafted in LIFE's particular style and syntax. This reproduction also situates the work in its past life by emphasizing the ephemerality of the magazine as object, with its water-stained pages and dog-eared corners. In its pairing with an alternate run of un-annotated images representing the 2012 exhibition, the curators hoped to shift and expand the Parks' series for a contemporary audience. While sequenced to echo the LIFE essay, the exhibition section also introduces previously unpublished photographs made during a month spent with the Fontenelles. The catalog’s few short essays also propose the value in looking at this work anew through the lens of The Studio Museum in Harlem, in the community where it was made, and with an understanding of Parks' ties to that place.

A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.
A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.

The LIFE essay is a sympathetic family portrait built on broad humanistic themes of hunger and fulfillment, tenderness and violence, and hope and resignation. Parks' high contrast images of crowded corridors and back lit windows that obscure the outside world underscore the harsh confines of the Fontenelles' daily life and point of view. Stacks of books and children reading are pointed symbols and tenuous ties to a better life. Parks crafted his accompanying text to cut through the racial and socio-economic divide between the readers and the Fontenelles, opening with the line: "For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself." Parks' gifts as a portraitist link the LIFE essay to the contemporary catalog, where many of the previously unpublished images reinforce his sophistication in this mode. This section also includes sequences of adjacent frames inclusive of known and unknown images, including sixteen shots of Bessie Fontenelle and her children visiting a poverty board office.

A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.
A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.

In her introduction, Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden states that this exhibition and catalog speak to her frequent confrontation with "irrefutable evidence of Gordon Parks' influence on a generation of multimedia artists whose work explores the complexities of race and poverty in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries." Yet I find the catalog wanting for its lack of critical analysis of such continuing relevance or a historical contextualization of this series within Parks' artistic practice. It addresses neither how A Harlem Family 1967 fits within the evolution of Parks' photographic representations of African-Americans in his twenty-two years at LIFE magazine nor specifically how this work resonates within contemporary practice. In its exact re-presentation of the LIFE spread, the catalog is in keeping with a trend for the meta analysis of photographic publications, al a errata editions' Books on Books series and the like. However, I still wish for some thread of critical thought to jump-start a comparative look between the historical context and twenty-first century un-framing and to argue how photography in Parks' tradition can continue to be a call to action and a bellwether of social practice.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.