As the Director of Sisterhood for my sorority, Alpha Phi, I am always looking for fun trips for girls to go on. Last week, I got several girls together to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. One of our sisters, Grace, has interned and worked there for several years, and gave us a personal tour. She was extremely excited about one exhibit in particular, “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott.” She had spoken with the head curator and wanted to give us the inside scoop on the show.
The exhibit displays the work of the influential and revolutionary African-American photographer, Gordon Parks. But this is not just any exhibit. These photographs have never been viewed before by the public, and in some instances, were not even developed until recently. In 1950, Parks traced his old classmates back to small towns in the midwest and the south where he photographed them for Life Magazine. The angle of the photo essay he was developing was to depict the normalcy of the lives of segregated African Americans in the mid twentieth century. The photo essay was never published, and for the most part, the pictures were never seen.
Never seen, that is, until Karen Haas, Lane Photography Curator for the MFA, found several of them and decided to put up on display for the first time. The resulting collection is astonishing. They are shown in a small room, yet the power of each photograph is so great that the room feels large.
Here is one of my favorites, and one Grace talked to us extensively about. It is entitled “Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas (Outside the Liberty Theatre.)” Here a young Shirley Hill, the daughter of one of Parks’ classmates, kisses her beau outside of the Liberty Theatre. It is, at its surface, a poignant view of young adult joys- the first boyfriend, the first kiss. Yet the name of the theatre- The Liberty Theatre- contradicts its segregated seats. This photograph’s dialogue with racism and segregation is not confrontational. Rather, it makes the viewer feel rather queasy at the blatant contradiction between the appearance of Fort Scott and its actual segregated realities. I am sadly not surprised that the photo essay was not published. This image would have been extremely controversial in 1950, before the Civil Rights Movement blazed across the south. Even it’s quiet suggestion of inequality would have seemed blatantly disruptive sixty years ago. Today, it is beautiful in its portrayal of Shirley and her beau- they look so happy sharing a personal moment before a date- yet horrifically sad due to its societal implications.
Here is another photograph that stood out to me, entitled “Untitled, Kansas City, Missouri.” The expression on the young girl’s face is happy and even impish, reflecting her innocence and youth. Meanwhile, her parents’ expressions read as determined or even austere. As Haas describes in the accompanying plaque, Emma Jane and Willie moved to Kansas City to gain better opportunities for their daughter, yet the schools remained segregated and they struggled to make money. Emma and Willie’s faces reflect their knowledge of hardship. Their daughter’s positioning above her parents visually suggests that she is separate from them. She is separate only because she is young and ignorant of the world around her. She would soon learn how difficult it would be to make ends meet in Kansas City, as a black-American, in 1950. Haas also writes that the construction of the photograph emphasizes the daughter’s importance in Emma and Willie’s lives. Emma and Willie’s daughter is dressed in a starched white dress, perhaps her Sunday best. It makes her look even more angelic, and even more symbolic of the innocence she still retains.
I found myself staring at this photograph for quite a while, attempting to read the expressions of Pauline Terry and Bert Collins in “Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan.” They are clearly pious church-goers and serious about the importance of faith. And yet, something about their expressions is grave. I wonder if they were merely attempting to pose seriously for the camera, or if their expressions reflect a sentiment about the conditions of their community. Regardless, Pauline Terry yields a quiet dignity that is striking to the viewer. One cannot help but be in awe of her presence.
In “Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas,” Parks quietly acknowledge segregation. However, he does not attack it openly, creating an overt critique on society. Instead, he places children in sites of segregation to evoke an emotional response from viewers. Here, two black-American girls hover on the black side of the bleachers, while a crowd of white children sit beside them in the white section. Their standing emphasizes their feeling of not belonging. Yet the fact that the viewer sees all the children from the back makes it difficult at first to differentiate the children’s’ races. I believe that this photograph implicitly critiques the pointlessness of separating elementary school age children, and people as a whole.
Lastly, I would like to show you my favorite photograph from this poignant exhibit. This is “Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas.” Here, Parks’ classmate Luella Russell is pictured with her husband and teenage daughter, gathered around the piano. Her daughter, Shirley, is the same girl pictured in the first photograph outside the Liberty Theatre. Her parents frame her, emphasizing both her importance to them and her symbolization of a new generation of black-Americans. And yet, despite the undertones of inequality in most of the photographs, this one seems oddly normal. Luella, Clarence and Shirley are a beautiful, well-dressed, talented family having a lovely time singing along to the piano. This demonstrates one of Parks’ main goals for the ill-fated Life photo essay- to depict happy, successful nuclear families that happened to be black.
While it saddens me that this photo essay wasn’t published in 1950, I think we are lucky to be seeing it at the MFA today. The exhibit will be open until next September, so please PLEASE make your way onto the Green Line to experience this special show. I guarantee that you will learn something.
xoxo, Chloe <3