This focused exhibition celebrates the publication of Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, expanded edition (2022). Published by Steidl and The Gordon Parks Foundation.
The expanded edition of Gordon Parks: Segregation Story includes several previously unpublished photographs, as well as enhanced reproductions created from Parks’s original color transparencies. A selection of twenty-six images from Segregation Story first appeared in the September 24, 1956, issue of Life magazine as part of a photo essay titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” Although some of these were exhibited during his lifetime, the bulk of Parks’s assignment was thought to be lost. In 2011, five years after Parks’s death, the Gordon Parks Foundation found more than two hundred color transparencies belonging to the series. Images from these were originally published in 2014, and in the years since, new photographs have been uncovered and significant improvements have been made to reproductions of this pivotal body of work. This edition of Segregation Story also includes newly discovered descriptions Parks wrote for the photographs, and features previously published texts by the late art historian Maurice Berger and the esteemed journalist and civil rights activist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, as well as a new essay by artist Dawoud Bey.
Gordon Parks’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Sr., taken in the living room of their Mobile, Alabama, home in 1956, is modest and straightforward. The elderly African American couple are seated next to each other on a red brocade sofa, their hands crossed awkwardly in their laps. They stare directly into the camera. Their impeccable attire and formal posture suggest their status as the patriarch and matriarch of a large southern family.
Although an important example of Parks’s documentation of the Jim Crow South, the image does not look like a typical civil rights photograph. It is in color, for example, while most such photos are in black-and-white. It is serene, belying the strife and hardship of segregation. And it depicts neither a newsworthy subject nor the historic event—the brutal murders, violence, protests, and boycotts—typically represented in the media. Despite these dissimilarities, the portrait, as effectively as any civil rights image, was a powerful “weapon of choice,” as Parks would say, in the struggle against racism and segregation.
The portrait was taken by Parks on assignment for a September 1956 Life magazine photo essay, “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” which documented the lives of an extended African American family in the context of segregation. A full-page reproduction of the photograph opens the photo essay, establishing its sensibility and tone: closely studied and thoughtful, it focuses on prosaic details. Twenty-six pictures were published in Life. While the bulk of the images Parks shot for the project were presumed lost, the Gordon Parks Foundation discovered more than two hundred transparencies at the bottom of a storage box, wrapped in paper and masking tape and marked “Segregation Series.” Characteristic of the photographer’s high aesthetic standards and commitment to social justice, the work represents Parks’s consequential rethinking of the types of images that could sway public opinion on civil rights.
…. Beyond their esteemed place in Parks’s oeuvre, the segregation pictures are among the most important and efficacious civil rights photographs. By focusing on the everyday routines of their subjects—and on their individual sensibilities, sensitivities, and aspirations—these photographs countermanded a mainstream media that typically viewed the movement through the eyes and anxieties of white people or through the high drama of historic speeches, conflagrations, and demonstrations. The pictures Parks took for Life achieved one of his abiding goals as an artist and activist: to make visible the nuances of a story that many chose to ignore or dismiss. In the end, they offer nothing less than an alternative view of an epic struggle, reminding us that it was fought—and won—on many fronts, from the public square to the private home.
Excerpt from Maurice Berger, “With a Small Camera Tucked in My Pocket,” 2014
Featured in Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, expanded edition, published by The Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl, 2022
Below are selected images and texts by Maurice Berger from the exhibition:
The segregation assignment was sobering and daunting. Alabama was a “hostile territory,” as Parks described it, where a Black man could not look a white man in the eye without inviting trouble and where hectoring segregation signs demarcated vastly different white and Black accommodations. “With a small camera tucked in my pocket,” he wrote, “I was there, for so long . . . [to document] Alabama, the motherland of racism.” Editors at Life were concerned enough for the photographer’s safety that they assigned a local African American man, Sam Yette, to guide him “through the perils of his [Yette’s] birthplace.”
Parks and Yette were routinely followed and harassed. Lacing his comments with racist expletives, a white townsman later remarked that Parks risked being “tarred and feathered” for the trouble he was perceived to be causing. Parks wrote in his diary of the terror he felt in Shady Grove: “My thoughts swirl around the tragedies that brought me here. Just a few miles down the road Klansmen are burning and shooting blacks and bombing their churches. Southland is afire, and lying here in the dark, hunted, I feel death crawling the dusty roads. The silence is spattered with fear.” His work complete, the photographer fled from the town with Yette via a back road: “After reaching Birmingham at dawn I took the first plane to New York. Not until it roared upward did I breathe easily.” If the Life assignment was dangerous for Parks, it was even more so for the people he left behind.
–Maurice Berger, 2014
At Segregated Drinking Foundation, was taken in Prichard, just outside Mobile. Among the individuals pictured is Samuel F. Yette, the man at left, and Cora Taylor, who is seen wearing sunglasses. Ms. Taylor and her friend were asked by Parks—back then he was simply “the man with a camera and a New York license plate”—to pose for the photograph.
Eventually, millions of African Americans would employ their own cameras to accomplish for themselves what a century and a half of mainstream representation typically denied: the creation of nuanced and self-affirming images. One detail in Parks’s portrait of the Thorntons—the ornately framed picture of the couple that hangs on the wall above them—demonstrates the way the medium might restore to history that which had been lost to poverty, neglect, or prejudice. The image, which dates to the period of the couple’s marriage at the turn of the twentieth century, is not as straightforward as it appears. Rather than a simple photograph, it is a splicing together of two separate portraits made several years before they wed. What first seems to be a wedding picture is, in fact, a clever restitution of an important but unrecorded event. The picture memorializing the couple’s union is also a metaphor of the resilience and urgency of their bond against a decades-long tide of intolerance and adversity. The coffee table in the foreground, with family snapshots proudly displayed beneath its glass top, underscores the stature of photography in the Thorntons’ lives, as in the lives of millions of other African Americans.
–Maurice Berger, 2014
Much like the images published in “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” the segregation pictures as a whole balance depictions of ordinary activities with stark evidence of the unjustness of segregation and the ways it endangered democracy: the brutal segregation signs that downgraded one community as assuredly as they enriched another; the grueling labor; the squalor and overcrowding; and the unequal, dilapidated accommodations. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Parks’s images, like the portrait of the Thorntons, are optimistic and affirmative.
They depict a Black family, who, like so many others in the Jim Crow South, resolved to go about their lives as normally as possible, despite an oppressive and restrictive environment: Albert Thornton on a stroll with his grandchildren; his wife cradling a newborn great-grandchild; Minnie Louise, the Causeys’ fourteen-year-old daughter, preparing a meal of collard greens and onions; Willie Causey cutting timber; Allie Lee Causey waiting to board her train for Montgomery, where she is attending Alabama State College; Virgie Lee Tanner ironing; E. J. Thornton and his wife at a faculty lawn party; his ten-year-old son, accompanied by his sister on piano, playing the trumpet; and the Reverend Charlie Ruffing, a pastor in Shady Grove, preaching a funeral sermon.
“The Restraints: Open and Hidden” was a turning point in Parks’s career, one that afforded him, for the first time, a vast national platform for challenging racial and economic subjugation in the Jim Crow South. Writing about the week he spent in Shady Grove, Parks expressed a profound faith in the potential of Black resistance—and of his camera, which he endeavored to use “effectively against intolerance”—to combat segregation.
–Maurice Berger, 2014
Determined to alter prevailing attitudes about race, Parks understood the value of empathy in his segregation pictures. Preeminently, he set out to challenge the myths of difference and aberrance that underwrote racism—misbeliefs that allowed one group to declare its superiority over another by capriciously ascribing to it negative traits, abnormalities, and pathologies. Nowhere is this challenge more effective than in Parks’s photograph of Joanne Wilson, the elder Thorntons’ daughter, and her young niece, a stunning image that never made it into the final publication. The two are pictured on a balmy summer afternoon standing in front of a movie theater in downtown Mobile, dressed in their Sunday best. The neon sign that looms overhead—“Colored Entrance”— casts a despairing shadow, transforming a relatively mundane scene into a powerful social commentary. Wilson, who would be honored fifty-seven years later by the Gordon Parks Foundation for her role in the historic project, had wondered why Parks did not ask her to correct her only sartorial flaw: the fallen strap of her slip. “I always wanted to look neat and nice,” she observes. “I did not want to be mistaken for a servant. Dressing well made me feel first class. I wanted to set an example.”
The oversight may have been intentional and strategic: it allowed Parks to stress the human side of an image that in its elegance and flair could at first be mistaken for one of his fashion photographs. In this context, Wilson, who went on to become a respected teacher of American government and economics at Mattie T. Blount High School in Prichard, Alabama, was not simply undoing racist attitudes and stereotypes through meticulous self-presentation. She was also attending to the demands of her daily life—like millions of Americans, Black and white—taking care of an active young child, but in an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation. The cost of meeting this responsibility, as anyone who has cared for a child might know, was the distraction that made her overlook the fallen strap. It is this poignant detail that helps us identify with Wilson. And it is this identification that, in turn, allows us to see and understand our shared humanity.
–Maurice Berger, 2014