I went to the Gordon Parks Centennial Exhibition at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery with my indomitable treasure of a friend, Liz. If you can’t go with Parks – who died at 93 in 2006 so we’re out of luck there – Liz is a close second best. The show itself is a treasure trove, with groups of black-&-white photographs offering glimpses into the incredible breadth of his work, from overlooked victims of poverty and racism in mid-20th century U.S or in the favelas of Brazil (taken during his time first with the Farm Security Administration, then for many years with Life magazine) to stunning fashion photos for Vogue to portraits of celebrities, athletes, World War II Tuskegee Airmen and ordinary people you wish you could have known. When you meet them in Parks’ photos, you do know them.
Liz married Parks when she was 23 and he was roughly twice that age, a marriage that lasted for nearly a decade. It was at a time when he was already well known for his work for Life and Vogue, and just beginning to branch out into writing. He would also gain renown for films – documentary and commercial, best known of the latter being “Shaft” – and music – a piano concerto, a symphony and a ballet which he also choreographed – and romantic involvements – most notably with Gloria Vanderbilt. My guess is he just loved gorgeous women who had more than a little pizzazz, and who can blame him; he was ruggedly good-looking himself on top of that bewildering assortment of gifts. He and Liz remained close until his death.
What was such fun about roaming the show with Liz was feeling able to peek inside the psyche of an artist so multi-faceted, while marveling at one facet, Parks the photojournalist. Liz wasn’t telling family tales, just dropping side observations about the times that set me wondering: was he just a little worried, perhaps, about his beautiful young wife talking too much to Marlon Brando at a party she was hosting? Or going to another party in New York while he was on assignment in L.A.? Could he have been, really!, a bit too immersed in an assignment (I was gazing at the resultant photos) when he dropped that young wife off at the hospital because their baby was about to be born?
In short, the man who gave the world such insight into the human condition was human just like the rest of us. It’s a pleasure to be part of the same human race. But what a superhuman talent, and what a rare glimpse. Thanks, Karen Jenkins-Johnson. Thanks, Liz.