Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

Gordon Parks’ 1950s Photo Essay On Civil Rights-Era

From The Huffington Post

Going to church. Playing around the house. Window shopping. These are the types of everyday, seemingly innocuous activities that wound up before the lens of iconic civil rights photographer Gordon Parks. Parks, a self-taught artist, believed in the photographic medium as a weapon of change, capable of awakening people’s hearts and undoing prejudice.

An exhibition of Parks’ rare color photographs, entitled “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” will go on view this fall at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The photos capture a particularly disturbing moment in American history, captured via the lives of an African American family, the Thorntons, living under Jim Crow segregation in 1950s Alabama.

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The images, originally titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” were first taken for a photo essay for Life Magazine in 1956. The essay chronicles the lesser-seen daily effects of racial discrimination, revealing how prejudice pervades even the most banal and personal of daily occurrences. Parks doesn’t photograph protests, rallies, acts of violence or momentous milestones in civil rights history. No, he prefers the quieter moments in and around the home.

Some photos focus on inequality — a “colored” line at an ice cream stand or black children window shopping amongst all white mannequins. Others hint ominously at violence, as one child plays with a gun and another examines it solemnly. Such images are especially haunting in retrospect, considering the recent death toll of American black men in this country, over half a century after these photographs were taken.

Yet the majority of Parks’ photos focus on the positive over the negative, showing a different breed of civil rights documentation. In the image below, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton sit firmly, proud and composed, affirming their existence. Instead of highlighting discrimination here, Parks emphasizes the similarities that bind all Americans: spending time in the home, being with family, exploring nature. Parks’ images revealed what so many Americans struggled to understand: the human link that connects us all.

See the full set of images here

 

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