Beyond the Canvas
Gordon Parks' chronicles of everyday segregation
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera." Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
Throughout his over six decade-long career, Parks used his camera to give a voice to those who didn't have one and to address inequities, documenting social injustice and all forms of discrimination.
These images are from the Segregation in the South series that he shot in 1956 for a Life Magazine assignment on race relations in Alabama. The reason I picked them is that I wanted to remind myself of what was 'normal' back in those days, of what millions of people had to endure day in, day out. Separation, inequality, exclusion, poverty, oppression, humiliation. That was the status quo until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially put an end to racial segregation.
At a time that was marked by violence, brutality and social unrest, in this series Parks offers us a portrait of everyday life of the Black community that is dignified and intimate. His striking use of colour photography acts as a very necessary and timely reminder that segregation is part of America's recent history. His compelling and groundbreaking work merged the harrowing honesty of photojournalism with a distinctively empathic visual language that continues to ask questions and inspire.
I know Zoom fatigue is real, but I would strongly encourage you to watch the recording of the excellent live Q&A with Nicole Fleetwood, Khalil Gibran Muhammad and MoMA curator Sarah Meister as part of the museum's Virtual Views programme.
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Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Airline Terminal, Atlanta, Georgia, 1956
Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956
All images courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation.