Gordon Parks purchased his first camera in late 1937. By the early 1940s he had become immersed in one of the era’s most important creative communities—Chicago’s legendary Black Renaissance of painters, sculptors, writers, poets, and dancers working around the South Side Community Art Center. There he met artists including Charles White and Langston Hughes, and was inspired to use photography to address his own experiences of poverty and discrimination. In 1942, Parks won a prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, which supported a move to Washington, D.C., to work for the government’s Farm Security Administration and later the Office of War Information during World War II. Soon he cemented his place as a socially engaged documentary photographer.

Raised in the segregated town of Fort Scott, Kansas, as the youngest of fifteen children, Parks had firsthand knowledge of privation, racism, and injustice. But he also knew the love of his family; after his mother died in 1928, he was sent north to Minnesota, becoming “one who moves with the new tide”—a phrase later inscribed in Parks’s copy of Native Son by its author, Richard Wright, who was referring to that period of social change accelerated by the Great Migration. Parks found his “choice of weapons” against prejudice when he acquired that first camera, while employed as a dining car waiter for the Northern Pacific Railway.

Section 1

Press Release

Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

November 4, 2018 - February 18, 2019

Washington, DC — Within just a decade, Gordon Parks (1912–2006) grew from a self-taught portrait photographer and photojournalist in Saint Paul and Chicago to a visionary professional working in New York and Paris for Ebony and Glamour, before becoming the first African American photographer at Life magazine in 1949. For the first time this lesser-known yet incredibly formative period of Parks’s long and illustrious career is the subject of an exhibition, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950. On view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from November 4, 2018, through February 18, 2019, the traveling exhibition provides a detailed look at Parks’s early evolution through some 150 photographs, as well as rare magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and books. It also demonstrates how Parks influenced and was inspired by a network of creative and intellectual figures—including Charles White, Roy Stryker, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. A fully illustrated catalog, produced and published by the Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl in association with the Gallery, features extensive new research and many previously unpublished images.

“While Gordon Parks’s varied career and influential oeuvre have been well noted and cataloged, the foundational first decade of his life as a photographer has never before been explored in such detail as it is in this rich exhibition and volume,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are grateful to the Gordon Parks Foundation for its collaboration in sharing a crucial chapter in the life of the pioneering photographer, including his time here in Washington. And it is a pleasure to work once again with Bank of America. They have been a consistent supporter of the Gallery and indeed many arts organizations around the world. This kind of support is important in helping nonprofit museums serve the public.”

Gordon Parks: The New Tide grew from an extensive dialogue between the National Gallery of Art and the Gordon Parks Foundation. Established in 2007 to preserve and promote his work and legacy, the Foundation has systematically made it possible to study his life and art through collaborations with museums,” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., executive director, the Gordon Parks Foundation. “As this exhibition shows, his photographs from the 1940s are the foundation of his storied career and vision. For Parks, creativity brought with it a fuller, more poignant understanding of humanity that is now our responsibility to share.”

Bank of America is a proud sponsor of Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950. Generous support is also kindly provided by the Trellis Fund. Additional support comes from The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation.
The exhibition is curated by Philip Brookman, consulting curator, department of photographs, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, November 4, 2018–February 18, 2019 The Cleveland Museum of Art, March 23–June 16, 2019 Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, August 31–December 29, 2019 Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, February 1–April 26, 2020

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in the segregated town of Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of his father’s 15 children. In 1928, honoring his mother’s dying wish, Parks left Kansas and moved north to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to live with his sister Maggie Lee. The transition was difficult; he attended high school only intermittently, held a series of odd jobs, and rebelled against Maggie Lee’s abusive husband. As a consequence, he spent the bitter winter homeless, forced to ride streetcars to stay warm. When his father and sisters Lillian and Cora followed him north the next year, Parks became more settled. He played basketball, composed music, and found love with Sally Alvis, who would become his first wife in 1933. At this time Parks was one of the first to enroll in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). After moving around New York and New Jersey with the CCC, Parks and Sally returned to Minneapolis in 1934 to begin a family.

In 1936 Parks found more stability working as a waiter on the Northern Pacific Railway’s North Coast Limited, a luxurious train that ran between Chicago, Saint Paul, and Seattle. In August 1937 a fellow waiter gave him a magazine that would change the course of his life. Parks recalled later that it featured a photo story on the Dust Bowl with pictures by such photographers as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Combined with visits to the Art Institute of Chicago and a viewing of the newsreel Bombing of U.S.S. Panay, that story convinced Parks that photography might be a tool he could use to help fight the oppression he had experienced for much of his life. Parks soon bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, which he later called his “choice of weapons.” He began studying photography manuals and magazines, had his first exhibit in the window of a Minneapolis Eastman Kodak store, and had his first published photograph in the St. Paul Recorder on March 25, 1938. Purchasing a German Contax, Parks began to make a name for himself by photographing and publishing portraits of glamorous women. After working briefly as staff photographer for the Recorder, in September 1939 Parks returned to working for the railroad, this time as a porter traveling between the Twin Cities and Chicago. His next break came when he convinced a local women’s wear shop to allow him to take fashion pictures for its displays.
In November, he met Marva Louis, wife of boxer Joe Louis, who admired these pictures and offered him help in finding clients in Chicago.

Gordon Parks: The New Tide is divided into five sections. The first, A Choice of Weapons (1940–1942), opens with some of the elegant society portraits that established Parks’s career as a professional photographer in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. After moving with his wife and two children to Chicago in early 1941, Parks was given access to studio space and a darkroom in the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). Recently established with support from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, the SSCAC was the epicenter of Chicago’s African American art scene. In addition to earning a decent living by taking portraits of the city’s middle- and upper-class African American community, Parks documented SSCAC activities, including its May 1941 dedication with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance. He developed relationships with other artists—many who taught at the center—such as Eldzier Cortor, Margaret Taylor Burroughs, and Charles White. The latter, a painter, encouraged Parks to take his camera onto the streets to document the surrounding South Side neighborhood. This section also includes Parks’s portraits of influential figures, such as SSCAC director Peter Pollack, renowned poet and playwright Langston Hughes, philosophy professor and architect of the New Negro movement Alain Locke, and opera singer Todd Duncan.

A fully illustrated catalog, produced and published by the Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl in association with the Gallery, accompanies the exhibition. The catalog features extensive new research and an illustrated timeline of Parks’s origins and early career, as well as reproductions of all the photographs in the exhibition (some previously unpublished) and a selection of ephemera related to Parks’s early career. It also presents essays by exhibition curator Philip Brookman; Sarah Lewis, assistant professor, department of history of art and architecture and department of African and African American studies, Harvard University; Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett professor of art and art history, Duke University; Deborah Willis, university professor and chair, department of photography and imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, and director, Institute of African American Affairs / Center for Black Visual Culture, at New York University; and Maurice Berger, research professor and chief curator, Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The catalog is available in hardcover at shop.nga.gov, or by calling (800) 697-9350 or (202) 842-6002; faxing (202) 789-3047; or emailing mailorder@nga.gov.

Introduction to the Exhibition—Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950
November 18, 2:00 p.m.
East Building Auditorium Philip Brookman, exhibition curator
A signing of the exhibition catalog follows.

Flophouse Crew
November 4, 3:30 p.m.
East Building Auditorium
Music by Gordon Parks

Retrospective of Films by Gordon Parks and Related Subjects
January–February 2019
A renowned photographer, Parks was also the first African American director of a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree (1969). In celebration of Gordon Parks: The New Tide, the Gallery is presenting a retrospective of his work in film, as well as a selection of other films related to the exhibition.


Boy with Crutches, Washington D.C., 1942

Boy with Crutches, Washington D.C., 1942

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

Ella Watson Sweeping, Washington, D.C., 1942

Captain Knox, Selfridge Field, Michigan, 1943


Section 2

Entirely self-taught, he proved himself a versatile photographer by creating glamorous yet refined portraits of Saint Paul and Chicago socialites and also pursuing pictures that expressed his own experience of poverty and racism. This purposeful and provocative crossing of categorical boundaries, which defined Parks’s artistic practice, led him in a number of directions during the remarkable decade of the 1940s. He moved on to New York in early 1944 and joined the photography project of the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey). Soon he was contributing to picture magazines like EbonyGlamourVogue, and Life. In 1949, Parks realized one of his highest ambitions by being hired as a staff photographer at Life, where he excelled at producing a mix of documentary picture stories and fashion and feature assignments. He continued photographing and writing for Life into the early 1970s.

Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950 traces his rapid evolution from an accomplished, self-taught practitioner to an independent and renowned artistic voice. The earliest of these photographs, all of which are culled from private, archival, and museum collections throughout the United States, were made for regional African American newspapers, local organizations, and clients’ family albums. Parks’s photographs appeared in significant exhibitions and international picture magazines, and by 1950 Life sent him to Paris to head its picture bureau there. This fi rst decade of his profession and his rapid rise to prominence have never before been explored in such detail as in this volume and the exhibition. For Parks, who was also a musician, composer, poet, writer, and filmmaker, his creativity brought with it a fuller, more poignant understanding of the world, and his photographs from that time have endured as a testament to the storied career of one of America’s most illustrious photographers.