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Issue 214

Gordon Parks and The Politics of Colour

The late US photographer challenges perceptions of African Americans in a two-part series

BY Candice Nembhard in Reviews , UK Reviews | 04 AUG 20

Following the successful launch of Kodachrome in 1935, Kodak dominated the colour film industry globally. Yet, the colour-reference images they used from the mid-1950s – known as ‘Shirley cards’ after the original model – carried implicit racial bias, since the film was designed to favour lighter-toned subjects. As Lorna Roth notes in Looking at Shirley: the Ultimate Norm (2009), it was only when Kodak received complaints from furniture and chocolate manufacturers in the 1970s that the company expanded its colour calibration.

In his 1956 series ‘Segregation in the South’, commissioned for Life magazine, Kansas-born photographer Gordon Parks captured intimate images of Alabama in living colour. Now showing at Alison Jacques Gallery, in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation, these portraits depict three rural African-American families against the backdrop of ‘coloured only’ public spaces.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, colour photograph. Courtesy: The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London © The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, colour photograph. Courtesy: The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London; © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Parks’s keen eye for colour, particularly red, offers a counter-narrative to the popular greyscale depictions of police brutality under Jim Crow laws. In Untitled, Mobile, Alabama (1956), a family enjoys the contents of a red-bound book on the veranda. Elsewhere, a red plastic cowboy hat adorns the head of a doe-eyed boy, curious children pose in front of a sleek red car and girls in red skirts shop for treats at the ‘coloured’ counter of a hot-dog stand (all Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956).

By opting to shoot in colour, Parks aesthetically liberates his subjects from the black/white segregationism of the Deep South, foreshadowing the changes that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would institute. In Parks’s Alabama, segregated wastelands appear as florid playgrounds amidst the warmth and charm of hand-painted signs and rising consumer culture. Black women are free agents, proudly wearing turquoise-blue dresses in the sweltering heat following Sunday service. Kids, unsupervised and spirited, play barefoot in the earth-red clay and explore green pools of uncharted waters in a world seemingly devoid of violence and race-based injustices.

Parks 2
Gordon Parks, Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, colour photograph. Courtesy: The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London; © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Parks’s nuanced project continues in the achromatic series ‘Black Muslims’ (1963), also commissioned by Life, which chronicles the message and messengers of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X at Rally, Chicago, Illinois, showing the minister with his hand raised, is juxtaposed with Harlem Rally, Harlem, New York, in which protestors hold placards declaring ‘Liberty or Death’ and ‘We Are Living in a Police State’, and Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, depicting a group of white-clad Muslim sisters attending a religious service. The nuance of these portraits lies in the delicate balance Parks achieves between black and white tonalites. Here, his greyscale palette helps focus our attention on the fine divide between civility and the fight for civil rights.

Given its ambition to challenge how we frame Black visual narratives, the exhibition would have benefitted from an accompanying selection of Parks’s extensive writings to provide a more nuanced account of the artist’s wider artistry and activism. Nonetheless, the curation does prompt viewers to consider Black independence in an otherwise oppressive period of US history.

These images have a life that extends far beyond both the magazine pages in which they originally appeared and the white cube in which they now hang. This resonates most strongly, perhaps, in Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama (1956), wherein the sepia tones of an old family photograph hanging on the wall meet the colourful near future of the crimson couch upon which the subjects perch. Here, Parks’s decisive use of colour speaks to the ongoing struggle African Americans face to attain true self-advocacy.

Gordon Parks: Part One is at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, until 1 August 2020. Part Two runs from 1 September to 1 October 2020.  

Main image: Gordon Parks, Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, colour photograph. Courtesy: The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London; © The Gordon Parks Foundation