The Enduring Spark: The Work and Legacy of The Gordon Parks Foundation
Two men; colleagues, collaborators, and friends for several decades. One a photographer, filmmaker, and humanitarian; the other a writer, editor, documentary producer. They met while working together at Life magazine, and despite a 16-year age difference, became confidants. In his early 90s, the photographer, having lived a rich life making some of the most important images of his generation, decided to speak with his writer friend about the possibility of creating a foundation that would continue his work and legacy. Consulting the writer was an obvious choice for the photographer: In 2002 he had been entrusted with the enormous task of preserving his own family’s collection of photographs starting from the time of the American Civil War. The collection, which is now known as the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection and housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, included incredible rarities, like glass negatives of Abraham Lincoln by the wartime photographer Mathew Brady. The writer, Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., agreed to work with his friend the photographer, Gordon Parks, on developing a foundation that would carry on the immense work of Parks. The foundation was established in 2006, the same year that both men died, two weeks apart in March.
His name is Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks. Date of birth: November 30, 1912, the youngest of 15 children. He knows as he moves around the world where he was born, Fort Scott, Kansas, that he is a child in a segregated town. He is a pupil in a segregated school. It is illegal for him to play sports or attend school social activities. His teacher thinks that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money. By age 11 he is already used to being the smallest, the most unworthy, the underdog. One day, three white boys throw him into the Marmaton River, knowing he cannot swim. He gasps. He struggles. He ducks. He survives.
When Kunhardt, Jr. and Parks began contemplating The Gordon Parks Foundation in the mid-aughts, and trying to figure out the best place to locate the massive archive, New York City real estate proved too expensive. Since Parks had lived for a long time in White Plains, New York, just north of the city in Westchester County, it seemed sensible (and cost effective) to locate the foundation not far from his home. They eventually found a building in Pleasantville at 48 Wheeler Avenue, ten minutes away from where Parks lived.
The early days were spent exploring, discovering, moving, organizing, and digitizing Parks’s archives. He had been the kind of artist that worked tirelessly, producing much more than he cared to show, so he had so much material he had never put into a body of work structured for the public. He had always been on the move, hardly having enough time to look through his own archive. Much of his oeuvre, although decades old, burst with such freshness that the foundation had to grapple with how best to present it going forward.
“It was a huge question for us,” says Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the Executive Director of The Gordon Parks Foundation and grandson of Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. “There was just so much of his work, we knew we had to get it right.”
He is 14 years old and his mother has just died. The night is quiet, hollow. He falls asleep beside her coffin, battling his own fear of death. Afterwards, he makes it to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with one of his sisters and her husband. He and his brother-in-law do not get along. They fight all the time. He is turned out into the streets at 15. Homeless, Gordon Parks turns towards brothels, searching for a job, for a life. He is a singer. He is a piano player. He is a waiter. He is a semi-pro basketball player. He is a bus boy. He is a boy.
In 2012, the year when Parks would have been 100 years old, The Gordon Parks Foundation undertook a publication to celebrate its origins, as well as Parks’s centennial birthday. They decided not to partner with any institution to do a museum show but instead chose to create a roadmap for Parks’s photography career. The project, an exhaustive five-volume collection published by the renowned German publisher Steidl, entitled Gordon Parks Collected Works, assessed Parks’s entire career from start to finish. The books garnered much attention, and by extension, interest in the young foundation, which was suddenly inundated with requests from museums. “They were asking, how can we get involved with the foundation? How can we do exhibitions?” says Kunhardt. The foundation began to work with institutions on focused exhibitions around Parks’s career. The idea of a retrospective was not on the table. “We aren’t interested in the idea of a retrospective at the moment,” notes Kunhardt. “A retrospective has a life and then is over. That’s not what we currently want for Parks.”
Gordon Parks is 25. He stumbles upon a magazine with photographs of migrant workers. He cannot sleep; he keeps thinking about photographs from that magazine. So, in 1937, he saves his money and buys a Voigtländer Brilliant—his first ever camera—for $7.50 at a pawnshop in Seattle, and he teaches himself to make photos. He feels alive. Within his camera’s frame everything becomes possible. He befriends the clerks at a photography shop and they develop his first roll of film. They applaud his work and convince him to seek a role as a fashion photographer at a clothing store. His photographs catch the interest of Marva Louis, wife of American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Marva encourages him to move with his wife, Sally Alvis, to Chicago. When he arrives in the city, Gordon Parks sets up a portrait business. He photographs society women. He starts to make a steady income. Life becomes easier.
After the publication of Gordon Parks Collected Works, The Gordon Parks Foundation collaborated with the Studio Museum in Harlem on its first, focused exhibition of the photographer’s works. “We received the best advice from Thelma Golden who was the Director and Chief Curator of the museum,” says Kunhardt. “She advised us to go deep, not wide. To go deep into the archive. And to really think about what could be done with Gordon’s work, not the generic blockbuster shows. So we did that, and Thelma curated a beautiful show on Gordon’s 1967/68 [series] A Harlem Family.”
On November 11, 2012, Gordon Parks: A Harlem Family 1967 opened at the Studio Museum and ran till June 30, 2013. It featured about 30 black-and-white photographs of the Fontenelle family, whose lives Gordon Parks had documented as part of a photo essay for Life magazine, who published it in 1968. The exhibition contained all the images from the original essay as well as many unpublished images, some of which had never been on show publicly. It proved to be a critical success, drawing large audiences throughout the run of the show, and also a great complement for the five-volume set of books.
“Going straight to a retrospective would have limited the inherent possibility of looking at Parks’s work,” says Thelma Golden. “But the other reason I advised them to go deep into each body of work was because I knew that would exponentially increase the audience and create a continuous conversation that would make Parks relevant longer than a retrospective would. It’s been amazing to watch it all develop.”
The foundation decided to stick with the method. Every year since 2012, it has published a new monograph and partnered with a museum for a show based on a distinct body of Parks’s work. “The partnerships have usually been organic,” says Kunhardt, “a new body of Gordon Parks’s work is released to the public and a museum show happens to be in concert with the work.”
His life in Chicago is filled with experiences, with responsibilities, with possibilities. Gordon Parks soon recognizes the need to engage in more than one mode of photography, and is soon immersed in documentary work. He traverses the city, memorizes it, knows it like the center of his palm. His hand is strong upon the camera, his gaze is sharp as he walks the streets. He scrutinizes the everyday, picking up anomalies. He begins to capture the diverse experiences of African Americans across the city. Hidden stories reveal themselves to him.
“The first obstacle for the foundation was that Gordon Parks’s audience was generally limited to the generation he was part of,” observes Kunhardt. By the time of Steidl’s release of Gordon Parks Collected Works in 2012, Parks had been dead for six years. How could the foundation introduce his work to newer generations? How could his legacy and work be protected, perpetuated?
“We’re trying to preserve the narrative surrounding his life and what he represented,” Kunhardt says. “It is important to continue to draw the thread, to show that there are many artists today whose work and thinking were heavily influenced by Gordon. Artists who couldn’t have gotten to where they are today without the knowledge and history of what he represented. Our response was to focus a lot on students.”
The year is 1941, and he has been making work in Chicago for 11 months. He submits his photographs of African Americans across the city to the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. He wins it, receiving a $200 monthly stipend. The spotlight is on him now. Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, winner of the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, rolling with the big leagues now.
Recognizing how instrumental a fellowship had been to Parks’s career, the foundation began a scholarship program in 2009 to help fund students across diverse disciplines. It was arranged such that students could use the funds to attend tuition-based programs, to purchase cameras, and acquire art supplies. Since then, the foundation has worked with educational institutions across America, including New York University, Harlem School of the Arts, Ghetto Film School, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Harvard University, and Pratt Institute, among others, to confer prizes and scholarships to more than 100 candidates. The process has been that deans and chairs of departments or programs elect scholarship recipients and send their nominees to the foundation. The initiative began as a $2,500 grant to each student, and has now increased to $5,000.
About five years into the scholarship program, the foundation realized that there was a whole demographic—working artists of a certain caliber—who didn’t fit the criteria of students but were emerging or mid-career artists, and who needed support for their work. The Foundation imagined that this support would not only help increase the scholarly approach to these artists’ work, but would also reinforce elements from Parks’s work with which they were already engaging. So in 2017, the foundation began awarding The Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship. Two fellowships of $20,000, awarded annually, are given to photographers, artists, filmmakers, or musicians to “support the development of new or ongoing projects that explore themes of representation and social justice in historical dialogue with Parks’ creative work and vision,” according to the Foundation’s website. Artists are invited to apply, submitting their work for consideration. A board examines all submissions and collectively decides the winning fellows. Eight artists have received the award so far, including Deana Lawson (2018) and Hank Willis Thomas (2019).
“We are a small non-profit like so many, but we’re fortunate to have the support of a great community of patrons,” Kunhardt says. “We have a gala every year. We’re also very lucky that the market prices for Gordon’s work has continued to increase. It has helped us be able to fund our work.”
The Rosenwald Fellowship leads to a job with the Farm Security Administration, where he trains under Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division, reporting and documenting the plight of poor farmers, and providing educational materials to the American public. In the mornings, as Gordon Parks walks into the FSA’s building, he notices a woman with her head low, cleaning the floors. She is slim, tall, hair parted neatly to the side, glasses resting gently on her face. Hidden stories have always revealed themselves to him, but he knows the greatest ones are right there in your face. He walks up to the woman, asks her for her name.
“Ella,” she says, resting on her broom, “Ella Watson.”
He spends the day thinking about how he will photograph her, and remembers one of the most striking paintings he’s ever seen. It is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, painted in 1930, and housed in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The man in the painting, holding a pitchfork, reminds him of Ella and her mop and her broom. The next day, armed with his camera, he convinces Ella to stand in front of a large American flag. Broom to her right, mop to her left. Both erect, like the pitchfork in Wood’s painting. Her jaw is slightly tilted the minute when he clicks the shutter. Above her head, the stars of the flag pour like snow on a winter night.
His photograph of Ella, American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942) is haunting. His boss, Roy Stryker, thinks its indictment of America is unshakable, its unvarnished depiction of menial workers so potent. The photograph becomes one of the most iconic images to come out of the Farm Security Administration. He continues to work with Ella. Goes to her home. Photographs her living condition, her family. But nothing from the series trumps the first photograph.
“The work of the foundation is not just about memorializing Gordon Parks,” says Kunhardt. “Much of our thesis is really about the arts and social justice and where those two meet. We are using his name and work as a platform to advance these causes.”
In 2020 the foundation launched a new project, a book prize in partnership with Steidl known as The Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize. Conceived by Kunhardt and Gerhard Steidl, it will serve as a publishing platform for artists whose practices reflect and extend Gordon Parks’s legacy. Steidl will publish and distribute a book that will feature new work by a contemporary or mid-career artist. The inaugural recipient of the prize, LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose work uses photography as a tool for advancing social justice, will have her next book published by Steidl in 2021. The plan is for each book resulting from the Prize to have an accompanying exhibition, and programming that will help further Parks’s legacy of how art can perpetuate social, cultural, and political change.
Together with the launch of the prize, The Gordon Parks Foundation set up a new library, called the Steidl Library, at their headquarters in Pleasantville. The library encompasses more than 3,000 Steidl art and photography books, a collection that includes out-of-print, one-of-a-kind, and limited-edition publications, rare materials that will now be accessible to scholars and to the public.
He decides to move to New York in the late 1940s. He gets a gig as a freelance photographer for Vogue. The industry is insidiously racist, mostly shunning Black photographers, but his editor succeeds in getting him hired to shoot evening gowns for the magazine. Gordon Parks spends years developing a unique style of fashion photography. He photographs his models in motion, rather than in static poses. At night he puts materials together, makes notes, works on book projects. He publishes Flash Photography in 1947 and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture in 1948.
All the while he keeps his ear to the streets. He has heard of a gang, one of many in Harlem, called The Midtowners, led by 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson. He introduces himself to Red, and spends two weeks gaining his trust. Then, for six weeks afterwards, he follows the gang leader around, making a series of photographs about the Midtowners, with a focus on Red.
Red working as a dishwasher in a restaurant.
Red as a janitor.
Red laying in bed, reading a newspaper.
Red adjusting his tie before an outing.
Red, shirtless, wrenching open a hydrant for neighborhood kids.
One day, during the project, he is together with Red when a fight breaks out. They both run, chased by a rival gang. They end up hiding in an abandoned building, both of them out of sight. Red stands beside a window and knocks out a pane—enough space to point his .38 pistol through. Red lifts a cigarette to his mouth, places his right hand on his chest. Red’s eyes are watching the street. Red will soon start firing. Red’s face is consuming light. The photographer recognizes the weight of the moment. He hides in a corner. He lifts his camera, and takes the shot. The resulting image, Red Jackson, Harlem, New York (1948), is terrifyingly beautiful. It is iconic for life.
In 1948 when Parks shot the series, publishing it as a photo-essay with Life magazine had proven to be more contentious than he initially imagined. The editors, after they had provided an ominous subtitle to the article (“Red Jackson’s life is one of fear, frustration, and violence”), proceeded to select mostly photographs from the series that depicted a turbulence, aggression, and lack of hope. Parks had hoped for a rounder, fuller story, one that included several pictures of the intimate, humane, and joyous moments of the street life in Harlem that he had also captured. Most of these kinds of pictures were rejected by the Life editors and they remained in Parks’s collection. Even the accepted pictures were edited and enhanced to show the editors’ bias towards depicting only the violence. It was so bad that Parks had to destroy the negative of a picture of Red holding a smoking gun, to prevent it from making the cover of the magazine.
In 2013 The Gordon Parks Foundation, together with the New Orleans Museum of Art, organized an exhibition titled Gordon Parks: The Making of An Argument, which traveled to the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia the following year. The Making of An Argument sought to re-examine Parks’s story of Red Jackson and the Harlem gangs.
Photographer Lyric Cabral (American, born 1982) sought out Red in 2007, one year after the death of Parks. She began making photographs of Red, age 76 at the time, following him to the barber’s, to the hospital where he waits to be seen by one of his primary care doctors, and other ordinary occasions of a senior citizen’s daily life. The photographs are from the other side, just like those excluded from the Life magazine essay in 1948. With The Making of an Argument, The Gordon Parks Foundation was able to bring together the earlier images rejected by the magazine editors, the original unedited contact sheets of the photographs by Parks, and the more recent work of Cabral, ensuring a proper historicization. The full picture was now revealed, 65 years after the original publication in Life.
By 1948, he is a full-time staff photographer for Life magazine, the first African American to achieve such a position. He will remain at the magazine for the next 24 years. He continues to produce fashion photographs, and also branches out into sports. He visits Broadway and makes theater photographs. A major chunk of his life is spent documenting poverty, racial and economic segregation. He befriends and photographs celebrities, activists. Malcolm X. Stokely Carmichael. Muhammad Ali. Barbra Streisand. His still-segregated hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, continues to haunt him. Gordon Parks returns there, makes a photographic document of the community and the lives of his classmates from middle school, now grown, hoping to get the work into Life, but the magazine never publishes it. In the meantime, he wins an award for “Photographer of the Year” by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Lee D. Baker, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and African and African American Studies at Duke University, even ventures to describe him as “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” Nine years after his death, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts finally exhibits his Fort Scott images for the first time.
Gordon Parks has often been misconstrued as simply a photojournalist. “That was one of the major obstacles we were facing and still continue to rethink as a foundation,” says Kunhardt,
He was really a Renaissance man. Part of the mission of the foundation in keeping him relevant today is showing him as a really important American artist who was successful in bridging the gap between creating work that educated but was at the same time artistic, regardless of the medium. I think that the fact that all these really big museums and institutions—the Museum of Modern Art, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Art Institute in Chicago, The Getty in Los Angeles—have had exhibitions and worked closely with the foundation to really document Gordon as he should be has changed all of that to a good extent. My guess is that without a foundation he would be thought of right now as a photojournalist that worked with Life rather than as the phenomenal artist that he was.
All his life, Gordon Parks has always been more than one thing at once. Now, when he is not photographing, he is writing, painting, making music. He becomes the first major Black Hollywood director when he directs The Learning Tree in 1969, an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel. Now it is 1970 and he has helped establish Essence Magazine, with a focus on African American women, and serves as its first editorial director. He has worked as a consultant for Hollywood productions. He has directed a series of documentaries commissioned by National Educational Television on Black ghetto life. Then in 1971, he directs the film Shaft. It becomes a blockbuster and cements his name as a movie director.
The Gordon Parks foundation hasn’t yet engaged much with the other genres in which Parks worked. His paintings (he had a show at the Alex Rosenberg Gallery in New York in 1981, of abstract oils), films, writing, and music for example, haven’t had much consideration.
“We’re a small team,” Kunhardt says. “We have really tackled and gone deep into his photographic work. There is so much material but again we’re limited by funding and time, so his films and other mediums are still to be more focused on. As the years progress we will definitely do something with these.”
The foundation’s work has obviously followed the advice Golden gave when preparing for the 2012 exhibition. As an entity, it has primarily concerned itself with how it can become a parallel for Gordon’s ideas and life. After the murder of George Floyd in St. Paul this past spring for instance, the same town where Parks had moved as a teenager after the death of his mother, the foundation began working with a school in the city, the Gordon Parks High School, to create programs based on Park’s life that would be inspirational to students. “We’re always thinking about more than just legacy, but also about how we can advance the plight of humanity itself,” notes Peter Kunhardt. He mentions another of Parks’s humanitarian engagements. “The fact that his work could contribute to saving Flavio’s life, and to help his family out of poverty is a pointer for how we constitute ourselves as an institution.”
He had gone to Brazil in 1961, on assignment for Life with the aim of documenting the situation of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty. In the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro he stumbles upon a slum, Catacumba Favela. He notices a 12-year-old boy, the eldest of eight children, suffering from severe asthma. The photographer thinks to himself, “Death [is] all over him, in his sunken eyes, cheeks, and jaundiced coloring.” Parks begins to photograph the boy and his family. He learns the boy is not afraid of death, but he is afraid of what will happen to his family after he dies. Life publishes the photographs and readers respond to Parks’s haunting images with more than $100,000 in donations for the boy’s treatment. His name is Flavio and he survives.
At the Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, there is a museum dedicated to Gordon Parks. It is a small space, holding some of Parks’s photographs (most of which he donated in 2004) and many of his personal effects together with other memorabilia. Although he had endured Fort Scott’s racism and segregation, Parks had expressed his wish, before he passed away, for this museum, at this community college, to hold these materials. The Gordon Parks Foundation has worked with and supported the Gordon Parks Museum in Kansas. “It’s not a big institution,” says Kunhardt. “But I’m glad it exists.”
He is 93 now, ripe as corn in the harvest. He has many emotions about Fort Scott, about Kansas. It is where he was first spat at for the color of his skin. But it is also where his mother rests. He chooses to be buried there, beside his mother, when he dies.
His body is moving now. Moving in the air. Moving across the country. Moving till it gets to Fort Scott. Moving till it gets to his mother’s side, where it all began.