AN IMPORTANT REPOSITORY of images, books, and materials documenting African American history and culture, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University announced the addition of more than 200 photographs by Gordon Parks to its collection. The prints were acquired directly from The Gordon Parks Foundation and include selections from 11 of the legendary photographer’s most poignant and prized series capturing African American life.

“Gordon Parks is deservedly one of the most celebrated photographers in American history,” Melissa Barton, curator of Drama and Prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature and a curator of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, said in a statement.

“Reviewing more than 200 of his images all together is a deeply moving experience. Every opportunity to share these exquisite photographs will be a thrill. We hope they will also inspire important conversations about the past, present, and future of inequality in the U.S. and around the world, about how Gordon Parks as an artist responded to and tried to reshape that world, in many cases through the popular press.”

 


GORDON PARKS, Untitled (Harlem), 1948 (gelatin silver print). | Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

With a practice that spanned photojournalism, documentary photography, and fashion photography, Parks was widely regarded as one of the greatest visual storytellers of the 20th century. He worked for the Works Progress Administration; Office of War Information; freelanced for Vogue, Glamour, and Ebony magazines; and became the first African American staff photographer and writer at Life magazine in 1948. Over his two-decade tenure at Life, Parks’s subjects included Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, crime in America’s major cities, poverty in Harlem and Rio de Janeiro, and Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and Muhammad Ali.

The acquisition features photographs spanning three decades, from the 1940s to 60s. Grouped into “study sets” the works include::

  • Washington D.C., images including 1942 portrait of Ella Watson, titled “American Gothic”
  • Images from 1947 Ebony feature on psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, whose “doll test” research about effects of segregation on Black children influenced Brown v. Board of Education decision
  • Invisible Man collaboration on images of Harlem with author Ralph Ellison
  • 1963 images of burgeoning Civil Rights Movement
  • Images from multiple portrait sessions with Muhammad Ali
  • Six of the “study sets” are drawn from from Life magazine projects:

  • Harlem Gang Leader (1948), the feature that got Parks hired at Life
  • Back to Fort Scott (1950), taken when Parks returned to his hometown
  • Segregation Story (1956), documenting Jim Crow in and around Mobile, Ala.
  • The Atmosphere of Crime (1957), on street crime and racism in policing
  • The Flávio Story (1961), focusing on a boy living in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas
  • The Cycle of Despair: The Negro and the City (1967), about poverty in Harlem, including portraits of the Fontenelle family.

“By placing these study sets at Yale, we hope to enable students and researchers from not only Yale, but also the New Haven community and the world, to share in Gordon’s vision through his extraordinary work.”
— Gordon Parks Foundation Executive Director Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.


GORDON PARKS, “Untitled (Shady Grove, Ala.),” 1956 (gelatin silver print). | Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Representing one of the largest collections of Parks’s work available for research at an institution, the trove of “study sets” will be housed in the Beinecke’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, alongside works by James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, and Carl Van Vechten (who established the Johnson Collection), among others.

The Beinecke Library expects to catalog the newly acquired Parks photographs and make them accessible for study and instruction by late spring 2022.

“Since its inception The Gordon Parks Foundation’s mission has focused on supporting programs and educational activities that echo Parks’s belief that art can advance social justice,” Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Parks Foundation, said in a statement. “By placing these study sets at Yale, we hope to enable students and researchers from not only Yale, but also the New Haven community and the world, to share in Gordon’s vision through his extraordinary work.” CT

 

FIND MORE The photography exhibition “Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons” is on view at Howard Greenburg Gallery in New York, through Dec. 23, 2021

FIND MORE “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired Gordon Parks” is currently streaming on HBO. The documentary film explores the practice of Parks and his influence on a new generation of visual storytellers

 


GORDON PARKS, Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1947 (gelatin silver print). | Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

BOOKSHELF
Recent volumes dedicated to the work of Gordon Parks include “Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957,” “Gordon Parks: Muhammad Ali,” “Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work 1940–1950,” and “Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story.” Also consider “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem” and “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument.” “Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective” documents his 1997 museum retrospective. “Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America” shares his inspiring story with children. “Gordon Parks: Pittsburgh Grease Plant, 1944/46” is forthcoming in February.

 

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