Gordon Parks – A Harlem Family 1967

I just wanted to sign off on this wonderful book by stating that I don’t think that anything I say will add to what John Mason has already said so eloquently here. The book contains prints of a great many of the plates that Parks took for the photo essay that appeared in the Life magazine editionMarch 8 1968; it also carries a reprint of the article as it appeared on the day. There are no other words by Parks, none are needed. It is a hugely moving testimony to one man’s work to bring to the world’s attention (and principally to the American public’s attention) the plight, the wrong, that was being inflicted on it’s own population. A wonderful but disturbing book


Gordon Parks – A Harlem Family

A Harlem Family 1967

This is a first for me, but I saw this wonderful piece by John Mason which seemed to chime with so much of what I see this course to be about that I sought permission to add it to my learning blog. My own attempt to position my thoughts regarding both Parks and DeCarava seem to pale by comparison. The writing I found both moving and poignant, covering areas which are still relevant today, and I am glad John gave me permission to present it here. I have ordered a copy of A Harlem Family 1967 and will post something about that after it arrives.

You got eyes. The Americans by Robert Frank

Like most photographers I have been aware of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ for a long time – I haven’t avoided it, rather just edged my way round it – not wanting to feel exposed to it, thinking that it might confuse me or leave me cold, when perhaps I would have wanted to ‘get-it’. Looking at prints in any order has been a contrarian habit of mine for a long time, often starting at the end of an exhibition and working to the front and I was aware that Frank spent a long time working the order of his photographs. I also knew about Kerouac’s introduction, and I don’t usually read introductions, I once did and not only did it tell the ending it told me of the ending that was originally written, but then discarded by peer and agent pressure. I read the book; I read the introduction first; I looked at the images in the order of – front to back.

Kerouac’s medium was one of words, his talent was to pull and shape words into a palette and then use them to paint them into picture in a way that perhaps only poets have, because that’s the reason they are poets. The introduction was a joy to read itself, the metering set the tone for the experience of the photographs, if I had not known of Frank’s work I may have fell for them because of this introduction. Kerouac’s verbal imagery sits as beautifully on the page as each of Frank’s images, these words set the tempo for the book and their inclusion seems so important. Frank talks about his book and Kerouac’s involvement here in this Jeu de Paume interview; fascinating.

Consider this single sentence from this beat poet towards the end of the introduction: “ Drain your basins in old Ohio and the Indian and the Illini plains, bring your Big Muddy rivers thru Kansas and the mudlands, Yellowstone in the frozen North, punch lake holes in Florida and L.A., raise your cities in the white plain, cast your mountains up, bedawze the west, bedight the west with brave hedgerow cliffs rising to Promethean heights and fame – plant your prisons in the basin of the Utah moon – nudge Canadian groping lands that end in Arctic bays, purl your Mexican ribneck, America – we’re going home, going home.” It reads like a lyric poem, because I think it is one. A verse to these wonderful pictures that tell a compelling story of an ‘outsider’ in a land discovering the Americans for the Americans to muse at, it’s interesting to note that in the Jeu de Paume interview he reckons he couldn’t have made this work in his home country of Switzerland – and maybe no-one has ever dared to complete an “outsiders’ view of that particular Nation State, but that discussion is for another place and time. This book enabled Americans to see their reflections in these images that tell their story in a moment in time.

Perhaps unfortunately I looked at the photographs with the association of Tom Wood’s exhibition still echoing in my mind, which is perhaps particularly unfair on Wood, but Frank’s titles are no more than statements of fact – ‘Elevator – Miami Beach’, ‘Car accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona’, Bar – Gallup, New Mexico’. These images are left to us, the viewers, to make of them what we will. We provide most of the contextual narrative with our personal cultural baggage that seems to have been towed around most of the States in the Union in the trunk of Frank’s beat up “old car”. We look at photographs like “Assembly line – Detroit” and we are invited to consider the one man whose head is held in focus, in stasis in a moment of ponderous thought, and then looking across that ‘Assembly line’ we see a uniformed man – we can guess at what our subject is thinking, we are allowed to project a sense of how that man is feeling at that time in “Motor-City”. Another, “Charleston, South Carolina” is such a poignant image as to wonder how America lasted as long as it did without the rivers of blood that it witnessed in the decade that followed this photograph being taken, more literal than Parks’ ‘American Gothic‘, but just as telling.

Each image in the book conjures these types of thoughts for me, and perhaps that’s what has made this a seminal work, it is a partnership between reader and writer, between the free scope of Frank’s lens and the society that existed then, but does not do so now. A society, like all societies, that was beset with troubles then but which are altogether different now. In Frank’s images not a single gun on view, but this piece from Der Spiegel looks at how guns were promoted during the time that Frank was collecting his Americans. I wonder what a contemporary Frank might make of the panorama today, one that didn’t need the directing titles of Tom Wood, but the subtlety of a Frank lens shining light on a troubled people.

I will leave the last word to Kerouac, his closing sentences from the introduction.

Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.

Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.

To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.

American Gothic

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Oscar Hammerstein II from the musical South Pacific

One might start with the term Racist, or Eugenicist, or Sectarianist, or Fascist, or any number of collective nouns for groups of people who set themselves apart from ‘others’; to distinguish themselves from differences they either cannot comprehend or decide are of a caste that does not conform to their narrower view of their social norm. Those who place themselves on pedestals.

I wasn’t aware of them when I was young, and I don’t really know when I became fully aware of them. My father hadn’t pronounced on them until there was a family issue that brought a lot of the questions associated with tolerance to the fore. This separateness that creates divisions on the basis of differences have always tended to suggest to me the need for power and control, mixed with fear. These distinctions between various peoples that are amplified seem too often to be derived from a very narrow, if not singular sources; Le Pen, Stalin, Mussolini, Luther, either of the two leaders of the monotheistic religions. The list is long and loathsome and it doesn’t appear to me to be shrinking, rather the reverse.

I have vacillated in the apportionment of blame between the notion of innocent misunderstanding and intolerance, between the understandable uncertainties of the unknown to full bore bigotry. At the one end of the spectrum there are those questions regarding customs and practices that are alien; these questions which are preyed upon by those that seek power, fuelling these fears to fan the flame and igniting bigotry where once was just ignorance. I’m not excusing those that follow those despotic leaders that ply their rhetoric, but had it not been for those that sought their access to power and wealth through the weaknesses of many then I wonder if the suffering and injustices would have occurred as many times as it has. And, who knows, were it not for those few words that my father delivered, those many years ago, I too may have been suckered into the embrace of those who seem to provide easy answers to difficult questions.

Gordon Parks’ ‘American Gothic’

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942 (gelatin silver print)”

Parks, Gordon (1912 – 2006)

“Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington… Bridgeman

This photograph, one of the very first Parks took after being contracted by the Farm Security Administration just happens also to be his most famous. The symbolism of the black woman, with the tools of not only her trade, but also of her position in American society. The ‘Stars and Stripes’ behind and above her, seemingly adding it’s seal of approval on the state of affairs, enshrining her role. This image has rightly been seen as a herald of the position of African Americans at this time. Parks, in the capital of “The Free World” whose constitution enshrined the freedom of all it’s citizens who had had a bitter civil war to free the slaves, found that he had to enter hotels by the back door, that segregation was the norm’.

Man walking away from Broom, Washington D.C. Roy DeCarava 1975. From his book Roy DeCarava ‘Photographs’ published 1981

This photograph by Roy DeCarava some thirty-three years later in the same city shows again an African American with a broom. It’s allegorical content suggests the degree of change in the life of these who once were slaves – the progress made in over three decades. This man has decided to walk away from his broom – though seemingly after he has swept up – but his position in society is still manifestly evident. He is on the ground floor, perhaps even subterranean; each progression to a better life is via a climb yet to be made; he may rest but he will surely have to work hard to raise himself in this society. The next level has further stairs and effort to be expended before he reaches any better place let alone the vantage point from where we are situated, looking down on him.

That photography has been used to both illuminate the viewer to the views of both sides of the racism divide does not legitimize nor demonise the use of a camera and photography. The camera is a mere tool, much like the broom in the above photographers, and can be used to deliver the intent of the photographer. The broom however can be both utilitarian and emblematic as both these images show. Shackled and unburdened, much in the same way that subjugated workers have been depicted in the fight against poverty and class, these twin images are equally powerful. Whilst thirty years isn’t long in terms of the struggle for emancipation, already several centuries old, it’s proximity to contemporary events is a sharp reminder of the distance still to travel. The Americans have elected a non-white person to the White House as “President of the Free World”, but with something like 60% of of the prison population either African American or Hispanic, one ponders on the notion of free – see here. Progress is being made, painfully slow in some areas in the West, whilst other territories seem to be on the decline. The current economic climate will fuel the debates on the questions of immigration, on colour and their twin effects on the ‘well-being’ of the ‘natural’ citizens on whichever country they inhabit. I am always surprised at the irony of these positions especially in the USA given their treatment of the native Americans.

My own Damascus moment occurred from when my father made his proclamation, one so startlingly and unequivocally stark that my mind was set from then on. His views on race had never been aired before, his views on socialism were clear – his support for the class struggle had been stated many times. His statement on colour had the benefit of brevity it was clear and concise; on the matter of one of my sister’s romantic involvement with a chap of West Indian descent – he would personally set all the ‘blacks’ up against a wall and shoot them all. She was fourteen.

Because my father hadn’t spoken previously about his views on race, I wasn’t aware not only that my he had these views, but whatever thoughts I had were fixed from that moment and that if he had ever thought to try and teach me, he was bound to fail, as he had failed me on so many other issues. Oscar Hammerstein’s words have more than a ring of truth about them, I can’t believe that prejudice is a naturally occurring phenomena,that it is hereditary; these thoughts must be implanted. Galton’s work in the nineteenth century to typecast peoples into racial stereotypes did inform vast swathes of peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; this work was used to educate successive generations from the Nazis to the National Front about the supposed inadequacies and malevolence of difference; it will take a herculean effort to right those wrongs. I feel though the weight of a guilty conscience on my shoulders. I feel that because I took a contrarion’s position to that of my Father’s and also those of mine and successive generations that have that prejudice, that I share that blame on their behalf. I find it difficult to shake off that feeling, as much as I feel the blame for child abuse and the way in which women have been treated – but more on that later in the course. Looking back on my childhood it is now difficult to believe how institutionalised the racism was, and, sadly, how indeed it still is.


p.s. update after I found this image and piece by the photographer Alicia Bruce which I think is an interesting take