Whenever Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet were at an event you know it was special—and with their cameras in tow, they made it even more eventful.
They were superb craftsmen and if you’re in the New York area you can see portions of their extensive collections at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Beyond their common photographic gifts, their penchant to document the dynamic world they inhabited, Parks (1912-2006) and Sleet (1926-1996) were fond of focusing the camera on children.
Parks began compiling his impressive images almost immediately upon arriving in Harlem in the early forties. This habit continued in Washington, D.C. where he captured the youngsters at play and gleefully posing for his portraits.
“Hey, mister take my picture,” is something Sleet heard throughout his magnificent career, especially during his long tenure as the featured photographer for Ebony magazine. He often answered those children’s requests and an ensemble of those photos occupies an entire wall in his exhibition.
Of course, when you’re talking about two of the nation’s most prominent photographers, the pictures of children are but a small part of their collections, and Sleet is well represented by his Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral services for Dr. King.
Sleet, who traveled widely, including several trips to Africa to cover presidential inaugurations, was also present at the funeral services for Malcolm X and his photo of the grief-stricken Betty Shabazz compares favorably with his photo of Mrs. King.
Parks’s versatility, under the rubric of “100 Moments” curated by Deborah Willis, to commemorate his centennial, is fully displayed at the exhibit, and his remarkable sojourn is chronicled here on two computers and projected from a wall panel.
Always fascinated by the working class, Parks’s study of charwoman Ella Watson, she posing with a mop and broom in front of the American flag, is expanded to show her in situations beyond her duties as a cleaning woman.
Like Sleet, Parks was an extraordinary artist who intuitively understood how to stage a photo shoot and capture the majesty on an individual whether it was Duke Ellington or Muhammad Ali (in Sleet’s case) or Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright in Parks’s aperture.
At last Wednesday’s opening, such celebrated photographers as Adger Cowans, Jules Allen, Tony Barboza, Danny Dawson, Azim Thomas, Tyrone Rasheed, and Bob Gore were on hand, exchanging memories they shared with the esteemed subjects.
In the Langston Hughes Auditorium, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the center’s executive director, told the packed house that the planned budget cut was reduced from $43 million to $3 million. The news was greeted with resounding applause.
Applause should also be extended to Willis and the Schomburg for assembling such a stunning array of photos from two photographers whose monumental documentation mirrors their astonishing lives.
The exhibit will stand until December 1.