Gordon Parks’ “American History”, or Why Style Can’t Be Taught

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Ingrid Bergman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Gould, Paul Newman: some of the most iconic portraits of celebrities, artists and human rights activists of the 20th century were taken by a self-taught photographer born into poverty and segregation in Kansas.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) is probably the most important African American photographer in the history of photojournalism. During a short vacation in Italy, my home country, I had the chance to see “Gordon Parks. An American Story”, a retrospective curated by Alessandra Mauro for Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia/Gordon Parks Foundation/Contrasto, held in Verona at the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

In this very peculiar location, an archaeological site with finds from ancient Rome, 160 b/w and colour images were displayed: a collection of family portraits shot in Harlem in 1968, crime reportages, as well as fashion shoots, representing some of Parks’ best work.

An activist supporting the Civil Rights Movement, according to the biography provided by the Gordon Parks Foundation, Parks bought his first camera at a pawnshop and “was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine.”

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Despite his lack of any formal professional training, he got his first job at the Farm Security Administration. He later went on freelancing, working on fashion projects as well as documenting humanitarian issues. He ended up becoming the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

During his career he proved to be a multifaceted artist, including in his practice photography, writing, music and filmmaking. Although he is probably best known for the blaxploitation flicks focused on private Detective John Shaft (Shaft, 1971 and Shaft’s Big Score, 1972), he had already started to shoot films in 1964 and continued until 1987.

His filmography spans the story of folk singer “Lead Belly” (Leadbelly, 1976) to the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, 1984), long before Steve McQueen had an interest in it.

Faithful to his belief that a camera is a powerful instrument against discrimination, Parks’ photos from “American History” are a statement of his eclectic talent, personal commitment and social justice.

Whether it is a reportage from a crime scene or intimate portraits of influential political leaders, his unique and vibrant style tells a story of someone whose instinct and heart really worked together to capture the moment.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

The only flaw of the exhibition in Verona, which is on display until 28 September 2014, is the poor quality of the translation of the English texts that go with the photographs. It was a very annoying kingdom of typos and misspellings that Shaft would have gunned down with no mercy.