Half Past Autumn
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PHIL PONCE: The people of Fort Scott, Kansas, their images have stayed with Gordon Parks all his life. It was among the people of this prairie town that Parks grew up as the youngest in a family of fifteen children, amid poverty and discrimination.
Now, at age 85, Parks can see the full length of his journey from poverty to a life rich in experience and range: photographer, poet, author, film maker, and composer. In the first museum survey of Parks’ multi-faceted career Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art is showing more than 200 of his images, mainly from his work as one of America’s leading photojournalists. The exhibition is called “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks.” I talked to Parks at the Corcoran about his early influences.
GORDON PARKS, Photographer: My mother died by the time I was 15, and already she’d imparted enough of herself to carry me for the rest of my life–when I needed it most after I hit the big world out there, you know, and my father was sort of a wonderful dirt farmer who farmed mostly dirt, had enough food for his children, to eat. So we had a rather meager existence.
PHIL PONCE: I’ve heard you say that your mother was the biggest influence in your life and in your work.
GORDON PARKS: She taught me what was right and what was wrong. She would not tolerate any sort of prejudice against another person because of their color. You know, I can feel her looking at me when I do something wrong–even today–even though she died when I was 15. I have a picture on my mantel in my home and my father’s picture, next to each other. And I look at them before I make a decision.
PHIL PONCE: A key decision–to use a camera as what Parks called his choice of weapons. Beginning in 1942, he helped document the lives of America’s poor–its workers–its urban and country dwellers–as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, a Depression era government agency. That’s when he took what would become perhaps his best-known picture. It was of a cleaning woman who worked in his office building. Her name was Ella Watson.
GORDON PARKS: That was my first day in Washington, D.C., in 1942. I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience. And I photographed her after everyone had left the building. At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and so disastrous that I felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C. was in 1942.
So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another. And I said, “American Gothic”–that’s how I felt at the moment. I didn’t care about what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America.
PHIL PONCE: You were once given the advice that a great photographer is often somebody who is a good person, who cares about other people. So you do wind up caring, or, in some cases, loving the people you photograph?
GORDON PARKS: Yes. I usually wind up liking them or understanding them better, even though they may have an evil content. The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.
The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big he can’t walk through one of these doors because he gets a good byline; he gets notices all over the world and so forth; but they’re really–the important people are the people he photographs. They are what make him.
PHIL PONCE: It was at Life Magazine that Parks began to gain a national reputation. He was the magazine’s first African-American photographer and used the technique in which he would focus a series on one person to tell a broader story about humanity, itself–like a 1948 life and death story on the violence of gang wars in Harlem through the eyes of Red Jackson, a 16-year-old gang leader. By gaining Jackson’s trust and spending time with him, Parks was able to capture lives rarely portrayed in American media.
Or his 1961 series on the slums of Brazil from the vantage point of Flavio DaSilva, a 12-year-old boy in Rio who, though sick with tuberculosis, helped support his family–Parks, in effect, adopted Flavio, brought him to the United States to be cured, and still calls him in Brazil to this day. Parks personally helped many of his subjects long after he took their pictures.
GORDON PARKS: You have to stay with them; you have to be a part of them. In fact, in stories like that I have gone to live with a family for about a week or so without even taking my camera so that they begin to accept me as a person, as a big brother, or uncle, or, you know, something of that sort, so that they have confidence in me, and I have love for them. And it’s a lasting love.
PHIL PONCE: But these images are also part of Parks’ vision. The man who shot life’s ugly side also captured the side that has to do with elegance, beauty, and glamour–as a leading fashion photographer in Paris.
GORDON PARKS: Well, there’s nothing wrong with photographing a very beautiful woman, right, and clothes, beautiful clothes, and so forth and so on, and affording me trips to London and Paris and all over the globe, you know, photographing these gorgeous gowns and fabulous women. You get a certain kind of joy out of that.
PHIL PONCE: Returning from Paris in the 1960’s, Parks again chronicled the pain and anger at this nation’s poorest; the burgeoning civil rights movement; and the rise of the Black Muslim movement. In portraiture, Parks also captured some of the leading figures of the day: Writer Langston Hughes; jazz great Duke Ellington, actresses Ingrid Bergman and later Barbra Streisand; boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
In his 50’s Parks’ artistic evolution took him in a new direction: films. He was a pioneer African American film director, beginning with “The Learning Tree,” based on his autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas.
ACTRESS: No matter if you go or stay think of Cherokee Flats like that till the day you die; that it be a learning tree.
PHIL PONCE: He made 10 other films, including the popular 1971 film “Shaft,” an attempt, he said, to give blacks a positive role model, in this case a charismatic detective. Parks, who learned piano from his mother, also went on to compose a symphony, sonatas, concertos, and a ballet on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
GORDON PARKS: It all comes together now for me, strangely. I’ve never before the last five years, I’ve never tried to necessarily tie them together. It just happens that I suppose if I felt that one thing failed me, I’d have something else to go on.
PHIL PONCE: These are some of Parks’ latest works. He makes them using computers, photographs, paintings, sculpture, and found objects.
GORDON PARKS: You know, the camera is not meant just to show misery. You can show beauty with it; you can do a lot of things. You can show–with a camera you can show things that you like about the universe, things that you hate about the universe. It’s capable of doing both.
And I think that after nearly 85 years upon this planet that I have a right after working so hard at showing the desolation and the poverty, to show something beautiful for somebody as well. It’s all there, and you’ve only done half the job if you don’t do that. You’ve not really completed a task.
PHIL PONCE: How do you explain the fact that you’ve had really such a remarkable life?
GORDON PARKS: My life to me is like sort of a disjointed dream. I can’t explain it to you. Things have happened to me–incredible. It’s so disjointed. But all I know, it was a constant effort, a constant feeling that I must not fail, and I still have that. And now, I feel at 85, I really feel that I’m just ready to start.
There’s another horizon out there, one more horizon that you have to make for yourself and let other people discover it, and someone else will take it further on, you know. You discover it. Somebody else takes it on. But I do feel a little teeny right now that I’m just about ready to start, and winter is entering. Half past autumn has arrived.
JIM LEHRER: The Gordon Parks exhibition will be in Washington until January 11th. It opens at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul in February, and then it will travel to nine other cities over the next four years.