The Power of Photography: Gordon Parks and his “Weapon of Choice”

Yesterday, I visited foam, the photography museum based in Amsterdam. Although I walked past the museum countless times and always thought to myself that I want to go inside, this was the first time I ever visited it. And I am glad I did – finally. I saw the remarkable exhibition I am you; Selected Works 1942 – 1978 that shows a great collection of works of the American photographer Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006) and which will be on display until September 6, 2017.

Gordon Parks was one of fifteen children and grew up in poverty in Kansas, USA. Intrigued by photographs of migrant workers he saw in a magazine as a young man,  Parks bought a camera at a pawnshop and taught himself how to use it. Despite his lack of professional training, he was able to start working as a photographer. He quickly developed his own style – which would make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age – enabling him to break the colour line in professional photography while focusing his lens on important aspects of the deeply divided American society, such as the Civil Right Movement.

In fact, the body of works that is presented in the exhibition shows how, throughout his entire life, Parks consistently explored the social and economic impact of racism, marginalisation, and poverty. The exhibition includes numerous colour photographs and portraits, documentary photos as well as fashion photography. The photographs from his 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader, which won him a position as the first African American photographer and writer for Life Magazine, document his work as a photojournalist. Other works, such as the many portraits of celebrities and politicians (including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael) reveal his qualities as a portrait photographer and critical documentarian. Also on display are excerpts from Parks’s films The Learning Tree and Shaft, which, in combination with the contact sheets and magazines containing his work, show the political and social context in which he worked.

I use my camera as a weapon against all the things that I dislike about America – poverty, racism, discrimination. (Gordon Parks)

What I think this exhibition is able to show is the fact that Parks’ remarkable photographs have a way of telling a story that is confronting and deeply human and can help to create empathy and moral clarity.

The Gordon Parks Foundation offers an excellent opportunity to explore Parks’ oeuvre. There are also more current and upcoming exhibitions that display Parks’ works. One example is ‘Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion’, curated by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, which sheds light on the relevance of Parks’ work today.

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