Among the greatest accomplishments in Gordon Parks’s multifaceted career are his pointed, empathetic photographs of ordinary life in the Jim Crow South. The African-American photographer—who was also a musician, writer and filmmaker—began this body of work in the 1940s, under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration. At Rhona Hoffman, 17 of the images were recently exhibited, all from a series titled “Segregation Story.” The show demonstrated just how powerful his photography remains.
Parks, who died in 2006, created the “Segregation Story” series for a now-famous 1956 photo essay in Life magazine titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” He traveled to Alabama to document the everyday lives of three related African-American families: the Thorntons, Causeys and Tanners. The Life layout featured 26 color images, though Parks had of course taken many more. Those photographs were long believed to be lost, but several years ago the Gordon Parks Foundation discovered some 200 transparencies from the project. A major 2014-15 exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art displayed around 40 of the images—some never before shown—and related presentations have recently taken place at other institutions.
The Foundation approached the gallery about presenting this show, a departure from the space’s more typical contemporary fare, in part because of Rhona Hoffman’s history of spotlighting African-American artists. The prints, which range from 10¾ by 15½ inches to approximately twice that size, hail from recently produced limited editions. The selection included simple portraits—like that of a girl standing in front of her home—as well as works offering broader social reflections. Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, shows a group of African-American children peering through a fence at a small whites-only carnival. In an untitled shot, a decrepit drive-in movie theater sign bears the chilling words “for sale / lots for colored” along with a phone number.
While most people have at least an intellectual understanding of the ugly inequities that endured in the post-Reconstruction South, Parks’s images drive home the point with an emotional jolt. A good example is Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, which depicts a black mother and her daughter standing on the sidewalk in front of a store. The simple presence of a sign overhead that says “colored entrance” inevitably gives this shot a charge. But several details enhance the overall effect, starting with the contrast between these two people dressed in their Sunday best and the obvious suggestion that they are somehow second-class citizens. An arrow pointing to the door accompanies the words on the sign, which are written in red neon. Nothing subtle about that.
The very ordinariness of this scene adds to its effect. Indeed, there is nothing overtly, or at least assertively, political about Parks’ images, but by straightforwardly depicting the unavoidable truth of segregated life in the South, they make an unmistakable sociopolitical statement. While the world of Jim Crow has ended in the United States, these photographs remain as relevant as ever. Fueled in part by the recent wave of controversial shootings by white police officers of black citizens in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, racial tensions have flared again, providing a new, troubling vantage point from which to look back at these potent works.