Gordon Parks, who died in 2006, is having an Atlanta moment. Three shows of the artist’s works are concurrently on view – two that feature a groundbreaking series of images that Parks took while on assignment for Life magazine in 1956, and a third that focuses on photos of a young Muhammad Ali.
In 1956, Parks traveled to Shady Grove, Alabama, to document the lives of African-Americans living under the oppressive Jim Crow laws, specifically three generations of the Thornton family. Twenty-six of those images were published in Life that year; the rest were believed to have been lost until over 200 transparencies were discovered in the artist’s archives in 2012. A selection of 40 photos from the series is on view at the High Museum of Art in Segregation Story through June 7, and 28 of those are also at Jackson Fine Art through March 14.
The images are exceptional. Color film was not in wide use at the time, and Parks set out to show the humanity of his subjects rather than the headline-grabbing conflicts of the Civil Rights Movement that were the norm. In a 2012 piece on the New York Times blog Lens, art historian and critic Maurice Berger aptly described them as “radically prosaic.” The actual magazine spreads are displayed in a vitrine at the High (and in the catalogue), allowing for a comparison of Parks’s original compositions and the cropped versions that ran in the publication.
Parks was harassed and threatened during his week in Alabama, and the persecution of the family members who participated continued long after. The Thorntons’s daughter Allie Lee Causey, in particular, was targeted for her outspoken comments. She was fired from her teaching job and her husband ostracized; they and their children ultimately moved out of the state with $25,000 relocation assistance from Life.
A number of Parks’s already iconic images from the series are included – six children peering through the fence of an off-limits whites-only playground; a father getting ice cream for his kids from a fountain shop’s side window for “coloreds.” Two notable images from the cache found in 2012 are that of a woman and her niece standing under a “Colored Entrance” sign outside a movie theater and a photo of three kids standing side by side behind a barbed wire fence, two black boys brandishing very realistic toy guns and a white boy smiling at the camera. Another photo, of a stoic black nanny holding a white woman’s infant in a waiting area at the Atlanta airport, has resonated with viewers so much that New York Times Lens blog recently launched a public search to find out the identities of the two women.
The show at Arnika Dawkins Gallery (through March 27) centers on photos of a young Muhammad Ali – training, fighting, resting, traveling. We see him driving a convertible Cadillac in Miami, for instance, and greeting fans from his London hotel window. In two portraits, Ali wears his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, as if post-workout. It’s a sight that, today, speaks not to hard work and excellence but to racial profiling and police brutality – a kind of segregation that persists, and not only in the South.