Citizens Divided

IN HER ESSAY for Segregation Story, the companion publication to the current exhibition of the same name at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault described a recent encounter with some Brooklyn middle school students. When she mentioned the segregated water fountains in her hometown of Atlanta in the 1950s, one of the kids asked whether the water in the “colored” fountain tasted different from the water in the “white” one.

Tasted different to whom, I wonder? Maybe the forbidden sip would have been sweeter for certain members of either group. For others, the water of discrimination, whatever its source, would always have a sour flavor.

In 1956, Gordon Parks was commissioned by Life magazine to do a photo-essay exploring just what segregation meant for one black family in rural Alabama. Published in the magazine’s September 24 issue that year, the piece—titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” with a text by the Life staff writer Robert Wallace—was in its own way an exercise in restraint: Its power derives from its quiet conviction. The open rebellion of the 1960s is still in the future. The family patriarch, Albert Thornton Sr., we are told, “has no violence in him”; his wife is described as “passive, illiterate, and devout.” And yet the essay does not counsel patience. Thornton is old enough to remember the days “before Jim Crow, when there were no ‘White’ and ‘Negro’ signs on public facilities,” and the end of discrimination can’t come soon enough for him or his children and grandchildren. All feel its sting, from the little girls gazing through a chain-link fence at a playground they are forbidden to enter to the Tuskegee graduate, now a college professor, who experiences racism as all the more humiliating because it makes no difference that he’s proved his worth as what Life calls “an above-average citizen.” The violence that kept Jim Crow in place looms ominously offstage. One of Thornton’s sons-in-law, a woodcutter, is offered a lucrative contract to supply a lumber mill, but he turns it down after “various of his white competitors . . . advised him strongly not to take it.” Later, Parks would evoke the atmosphere of the time: “I feel death crawling the dusty roads. The silence is spattered with fear.” In the photographs themselves, the forces that keep people in their place are revealed only through the kind of signage Hunter-Gault knew as a child: COLORED ENTRANCE, COLORED WAITING ROOM, and yes, a WHITE ONLY drinking fountain.

Along with the half-dozen spreads (containing twenty-six images) of the published article, Segregation Story includes sixty photographs Parks made while working on the project. In many ways, they are even more powerful without any text, for words are like a small cup dipped into the deep well of these images, which are so rich in information—and, at times, in mystery. Social issues are only part of the story. Parks had a particular genius for portraying the imaginative worlds of childhood—an image of two boys in overalls fishing, our view of them framed by moss-choked branches, is a masterpiece in itself. The difficult relationship between people and the land is more evident here than that between one group of citizens and their neighbors. Parks’s openness to the random details of how people are situated in the scruffy landscape of rural Alabama seems a harbinger of the ’70s color-snapshot-style aesthetic of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld.

The apparent informality of some of the images probably reflects Parks’s assumption that the photos did not necessarily have to be perfectly composed (though many of them are), because they would be cropped if used in the magazine. While the photographer’s easy relationship with his black subjects allows his presence behind the camera to emerge as a palpable factor in the construction of the image, there are times when he would have had to silently edit himself out of the scene in order to get the picture. The book’s cover image—one that did not appear in the original Life article—shows an airport waiting room in which a white-uniformed black nanny holds a white infant while an elegantly black-clad white woman sits nearby; one might assume that the white woman is the baby’s mother, but in a note Parks mentions “a white baby . . . held by a Negro maid while the baby’s mother checks on reservations, etc.,” implying that this mother is not in the frame. The cover image has been cropped as the magazine’s editors might have done it, but nearly one-third of the full picture, as shown inside the book, is occupied by someone’s out-of-focus neck and head in the extreme foreground—which (as the photographer Dawoud Bey pointed out to me) suggests that Parks chose to shoot from a position in which someone else was between him and his subjects, allowing him to work unobserved. What comes through in what we see in so many of these photographs (in the blank face of the woman looking after her employer’s child, for instance), and in what we don’t see (how Parks had to improvise a way to get the picture without being noticed himself), is how hard you had to work just to be able to keep on working if you were black in the South. In those circumstances, respectability and self-respect were hard work, too.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, ink-jet print, 7 3/4 × 11 1/2".
Gordon Parks, Untitled, Alabama, 1956, ink-jet print, 7 3/4 × 11 1/2". Courtesy and © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Other than that woman in the airport—not even strictly part of the project for Life, since it takes place in Atlanta, presumably on Parks’s way to or from his assignment—there’s only one white face to be seen in the sixty images of Segregation Story, showing just how segregated the world of the Thorntons really was. (Or was it just that it wasn’t safe for Parks to use his camera when whites were watching?) In this image, a scruffily dressed, shirtless blond boy stands behind a barbed-wire fence with a couple of black playmates who are slightly better dressed in clean white shirts and brown shorts that (unlike the white boy’s jeans) have no holes in them. The two black boys are playing with toy guns—one aiming straight at the photographer and the other, with a dramatic pose that might have come from a cowboy movie but suggests real emotional violence, pointing his pistol at some target off to the side. There is innocence here—at precisely what age did it become impossible to have friends of another race?—and yet not entirely. This is a place where violence is hardly alien. In these images, we experience an almost entirely black world—that’s why it’s a segregation story: home, church, school, work, and the graveyard form a racially homogeneous milieu, but the pressure from outside, the brutal system that keeps these people poor and isolated, is constantly at work.

Many of the images in Segregation Story had already appeared in Volume III of a handsome five-volume Collected Works published in late 2012, six years after Parks died at the age of ninety-three. But it’s great to have more of them available, and at a price that makes them more attainable to those of Parks’s admirers for whom the cost of the set would be a stretch. It’s a reminder, too, that the idea of a “collected works” can never be more than a convenient fiction. The work of a photographer is always more encompassing, more ramified, than any one presentation can allow. Did the trip to Alabama really yield just these sixty frames? I have to doubt it. Maybe another “collected works” would be a mass of contact sheets or even of negatives. That’s probably even truer for Parks than for most. In his case, photography wasn’t the whole story. He was also a filmmaker, writer, and composer. And it wasn’t just his mastery of multiple art forms that makes it hard to get the measure of him; within any one of the arts he practiced, he was impossible to pigeonhole. Most of his writings are autobiographical, including his famous coming-of-age novel, The Learning Tree (1964), but his second novel, Shannon (1981), concerned Irish-American strivers in World War I–era New York, and the third, The Sun Stalker (2003), was based on the life of J. M. W. Turner. In 1969, he became the first black director of a Hollywood feature by demanding that, if The Learning Tree was going to be made into a movie, no one be allowed to do it but him; he followed that rather formal and nostalgic film with the streetwise Shaft (1971), thereby initiating (along with Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released around the same time) the blaxploitation genre. And while the photographs for which he is best remembered amount to a gritty survey of black life in America, he was also a brilliant (if now somewhat underrated) fashion photographer; it’s telling that, in 1948, his first two assignments for Life were on Harlem gangs and the latest in furs, respectively—he shot one set of pictures by day and the other by night.

“New Furs” didn’t make it into the Collected Works, its fifth volume being devoted to reproductions of Life spreads, but the 1949 cover story “Paris Fashions” did. Parks turns the elegant garments into crisp, graphic silhouettes against out-of-focus street scenes that embody an American dream of the City of Lights. More surprising, perhaps, is a 1952 feature for which Parks tried to visualize scenes from what the magazine called the “sometimes confusing but powerful first novel” by Parks’s friend Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. One of the images represents the very same scene that Jeff Wall would illustrate nearly fifty years later in his color lightbox photograph After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 2000, showing the unnamed narrator in his secret basement hideaway, blazing with light. “To take this symbolic picture,” the Life editors explained, “Parks built a special room and wired it for lights. Then he superimposed the picture of the room on a picture of New York at night.”

Parks might have been an unacknowledged influence on the new American color photography of the 1970s, but he was also a practitioner of the quasi-theatrical or cinematic kind of picture-making that A. D. Coleman would dub “the directorial mode,” heralding its return to favor a couple of decades later. So who was Parks? The documentarian he started out as? The connoisseur of women’s elegance (though the nudes that, it’s been said, he photographed “in a style akin to that of Baroque painting” are not part of these Collected Works)? The director of symbolic fictions? All and none. At one level, he was the ultimate professional, able to turn his hand to anything with style and aplomb. But he was also something more than that—an artist whose hunger for expression acknowledged no limits, not even that of his own identity. He had his own, American version of Rimbaud’s “je est un autre”: As he put it, “I’ve disappeared into myself so many different ways that I don’t know who ‘me’ is.” That’s probably what he hated most about segregation. In his life and work, he had managed to escape many, though hardly all, of its restraints. Yet anything that would impose a singular definition on a human being remained alien to him.

Barry Schwabsky is the art critic for The Nation and a coeditor of international reviews for Artforum. His new book is a collection of poems, Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions, 2015).