A traveling exhibit of works by photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006) casts a look back to a time 70 years ago when the lives of black Americans were “invisible.” 

Starting Feb. 1, Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art will display Parks’ early works.

The Addison is the fourth stop in the show, “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950,” presented by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the mid-20th century, Parks’ black-and-white photographs brought mainstream viewers to places that they might not have otherwise gone, showing them images they would not have otherwise seen:

Leonard “Red” Jackson, a Harlem teen and gang member, hiding in an abandoned New York City building, standing beside a broken window pane, cigarette in mouth, peeking at the street below for foes.

Ella Watson, a stoic, bespectacled cleaning woman in the nation’s capital, standing below an American flag, holding a mop in one hand, in the other a broom.

Allison Kemmerer, the Addison’s curator of photography and contemporary art, said that Parks knew racism firsthand and understood the people he photographed.

His photographs have power and lent that power, during the civil rights movement, to a growing awareness of prejudice in the land of the free.

“Although they document specific people and moments in history, his images capture human themes and issues that still resonate with us today,” Kemmerer said.

Parks shot photos of everyday life lived by folks whose every day was made of hard circumstances. They include white folks.

An old Gloucester fisherman fires a pipe under sea lanterns and block and tackle.

Parks would become a 20th-century Renaissance man — filmmaker, author, composer. 

Later, he would take iconic photographs of heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali and human rights activist Malcolm X and direct “Shaft” and write books, all of which comprised his arsenal in battle against prejudice. Art furnished him his “weapons of choice.”

Parks’ early experiences and photographs, from the 1940s, were a foundation upon which his later works were built.

“I think it is always fascinating to see how an artist’s early experiences shape their mature style and vision,” Kemmerer said.

“This is the first time this early period of Parks’ career has been explored in such detail, and as a result, it offers a rare and expansive look at how this artist became one of the most influential photographers of the day,” she said.

His beginnings were inauspicious; he grew up one of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kansas, before heading north for opportunity.

He had courage and ingenuity and confidence in his self-taught skills. And his camera took him where he might not have otherwise gone.

Parks, the first black photographer for Life Magazine, was recognized — and perhaps has been remembered best — for his photography; for documenting injustice and presenting arresting images that draw interest in their own right and invite further investigation.

“Gordon Parks: The New Tide” has 150 photographs and ephemera, including magazines, books, letters and family pictures.

They document his early experiences at the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency to combat rural poverty; the U.S. Office of War Information created during World War II; and Standard Oil, as well as his close relationships with fellow African American figures like economist and photographer Roy Stryker, poet and social activist Langston Hughes, author Richard Wright, and novelist Ralph Ellison, according to the Addison.

The exhibit, organized by the National Gallery of Art in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation, was curated by Philip Brookman of the National Gallery.

The exhibit opened there, followed by stops at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio (March 23-June 9, 2019) and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (Aug. 31-Dec. 29, 2019). The Addison is its final stop. The show will be up through April 26.

Earlier, Brookman, a National Gallery consulting curator, came to the Addison to see a Parks photograph in its collection.

It was then that the Phillips Academy gallery administrators learned about the tour and its focus on Parks’ early years, an exciting perspective.

“We immediately asked Philip about the potential of the Addison being a venue, and the rest is history,” Kemmerer said.

IF YOU GO

What: “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950,” presented by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

When: Feb. 1 through April 26; opening reception Saturday, Feb. 8, 6 to 8 p.m. 

Where: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 80 Main St., Andover

How much: Free admission

Special tours: Sunday, Feb. 9, 2 p.m., led by National Gallery of Art consulting curator Philip Brookman; Saturday, Feb. 25, 11 a.m., led by Addison Gallery curator of photography and contemporary art Allison Kemmerer 

More information: addison.andover.edu

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