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Segregation Portfolio revisits Gordon Parks photographs

A half century later, Gordon Parks 1956 segregation series still speaks volumes

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In Gordon Parks' posthumous memoir, A Hungry Heart, the celebrated artist best known for his filmmaking and photography dedicates a chapter to the harrowing trip he took to document segregation in the Deep South for Life magazine in 1956. While scouting African-American families to photograph in Alabama, Parks discovered the Life bureau chief assigned to be his guide had compromised his safety by leaking his whereabouts to the local arm of the White Citizens' Council. After barely evading the white supremacist organization, Parks' resulting work appeared in a 26-photo spread in the magazine. "The Restraints: Open and Hidden" stood out among photography of the era because it used color photos to document the day-to-day impact of Jim Crow segregation on an otherwise anonymous extended family, the Thorntons, rather than focusing on the heroes and flash points of the Civil Rights Movement. When part of the family was kicked out of its Shady Grove, Ala., home and run out of town as a repercussion, Life magazine donated $25,000 to help the family relocate. By capturing the quiet dignity and humanity of Southern blacks, the series highlighted the inadequacies of the separate but equal doctrine at a time when the country was consciously grappling with race. The Segregation Portfolio, currently on display at Jackson Fine Art, revisits this moment in Parks' work with an exhibition of 12 color prints.

After dropping in the gallery, Creative Loafing photographer Joeff Davis and I sat down to discuss it.

— Rodney Carmichael

Rodney Carmichael: Looking at these photographs reminds me that history is always the final judge.

Joeff Davis: That's an interesting idea in itself, but do you think a photograph could cause a reaction critical enough to undo racial prejudice?

RC: I think it could in the past, but I don't know about now. We're so jaded. I mean look at the Vietnam War. People saw those images on TV for the first time and it caused outrage.

Gordon Parks. Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956. - COURTESY JACKSON FINE ART, ATLANTA AND ARNIKA DAWKINS GALLERY. © THE GORDON PARKS FOUNDATION.
  • Courtesy Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
  • Gordon Parks. Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956.

JD: That's interesting, though, because the Vietnam War went on for a long fucking time.

RC: It did, but it solicited a lot of outrage because people were seeing that reality piped into their living rooms. On the surface, none of these Gordon Parks images were even newsworthy. They were so regular and mundane and a part of the everyday fabric of reality for these people — black people and white people in the South. It was the context of Gordon Parks coming from the North to the South that made it newsworthy to him. Anybody living in that geographic space and time wouldn't have thought twice about it. Do you know about what happened after Life published these photos? How one of the families got kicked out of their home and run out of town by racists?

JD: Life gave them $25,000 to help them relocate.

Gordon Parks. Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. - COURTESY JACKSON FINE ART, ATLANTA AND ARNIKA DAWKINS GALLERY. © THE GORDON PARKS FOUNDATION

RC: That's crazy. I looked up the modern equivalent of $25,000 and it would be like $200,000 today. Can you imagine a publication like Creative Loafing or a national glossy today doing something like—

JD: Unethical. It would be declared unethical. I just think about this in terms of when I've been with journalists and we're doing a story on homeless people and I've said, "Let's give them $10 bucks or $20." And they'd say, "You can't do that. That's unethical." But I always think it's unethical not to give a homeless person money when the newspaper is making money off of them.

RC: But that's a little different. This is about your journalism having an extremely negative impact on your source and you attempting to right that wrong.

JD: Yeah, that happens all the time. We just don't know about it. We just did that homeless story about people living underneath the bridge. Say they went and arrested them as a result of that story. Then for us to get involved in that, for me to try to do a fundraiser for them, I think it would be looked at journalistically as a bit unethical. And that's exactly what Life did. They became part of the story.

Gordon Parks. At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. - COURTESY JACKSON FINE ART, ATLANTA AND ARNIKA DAWKINS GALLERY. © THE GORDON PARKS FOUNDATION

RC: The more interesting thing is that there's no journalistic entity today that would consider itself financially flush enough to be able to afford such a payout.

JD: I don't think the amount of money is the issue. Do you think it would ever be considered journalistically OK to give your source money?

RC: No.

JD: Exactly. By giving that family $25,000, Life wrote the next chapter of the story, and I think that's what's considered unethical. Another interesting thing about this exhibit is the amount these photographs are selling for. Do you see anything wrong with that?

RC: They're all $5,000 apiece. Definitely out of my price range. I think it speaks to the historical value of the photos. And it has a lot to do with the legacy of the photographer and his body of work. I can't say I have any qualms about it, but it is interesting that 50 years later we place a higher value on these photos of black life than society placed on their actual lives when the photos were taken. I don't think you can overestimate the social role these photos played in affecting permanent change at the time they were published, though. They're like civil rights artifacts.

JD: Have you experienced racism in your lifetime?

RC: Maybe indirectly.

JD: I think of racism more as like being followed around by security in the store.

RC: The same way Gordon Parks' images shaped and humanized the perception of black people in the 1950s, some of these crazy reality shows have become the definitive images of our times. And I think they're unconsciously shaping the way African-Americans are perceived — by whites as well as blacks — even more than President Obama being in the White House. Let's be real: Obama is considered the anomaly more than even the most outrageous stuff on reality TV.

JD: See, personally, I think that I'm racist. I think that almost anybody who grows up in America is racist. Because I've been fed so many negative images of African-Americans in my life. I think it's a little different now, but definitely growing up often when there was a crime committed by a black person they would show their mug shot on the screen when I watched the news. And in my formative years, these were images that were fed to me. And so when I walk down the street, if a black person's following me instead of a white person, I kind of act a little different. I mean I catch myself but I think that it's ingrained in the culture to be racist in our society. And I think anybody who says it's not is kind of in denial. And that's a messed-up thing.

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