Born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks, who died in 2006 at age 93, was an African American photographer who began working professionally in the 1930’s. Parks tackled the harsh truth and dignity of the black urban and rural poor in the United States. He photographed aspects of the Civil Rights movements and individuals associated with the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. For nearly 25 years, from 1948 to 1972, he served as staff photographer for Life magazine. He also established himself as a foremost fashion photographer, providing spreads for respected magazines such as Vogue.
Bare Witness features many of Parks’s most memorable images such as “American Gothic.” Taken during Parks’s brief time with the Farm Security Agency, the photograph depicts a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. Also included in the exhibition is a series of photos from Parks’s most famous Life magazine essay about Flavio da Silva, a malnourished and asthmatic boy living in a Rio de Janerio slum. Portraits of Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Alexander Calder, Ingrid Bergman, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X among others will also be on view.
“Whether photographing celebrities or common folk, children or the elderly, Harlem gang leaders or fellow artists, Parks brought his straightforward, sympathetic ear and mind to bear witness to late 20th century civilization,” commented Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Cantor Arts Center and organizer of the exhibition. “His photographs balance the dichotomies of black and white, rich and poor, revealing his strengths and struggles as an artist and a man.”
In addition to his documentary and fashion photography, Parks was a filmmaker, author, musician and publisher. He was the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree” in 1969, which was based on his early life experiences. He subsequently directed the popular action films “Shaft” and “Shaft’s Big Score.” He was a founder and editorial director of Essence magazine and wrote several autobiographies, novels and poems. In 1988, he received the National Medal of Arts award and throughout his lifetime was the recipient of 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and England.
“Parks was a renaissance man whose career embodied the American ideal of equality and whose art was deeply personal."