In the book Half Past Autumn, a 1997 retrospective of the photography of Gordon Parks, the renowned photographer, writer and filmmaker wrote: “Finally, after a long search for weapons to fight off the oppressions of my adolescence, I found two powerful ones — the camera and the pen.” In 1938, Parks bought his first camera, and from then on he would become one of the most celebrated photographers of our time. He was an honest documentarian who had borne witness to life’s joys and sorrows; a storyteller whose moving photographs revealed his humanity and compassion.
While a photographer for “Life” magazine, in the 1950s, Parks, the magazine’s first African-American photographer, was approached to do a photo-feature on the impact of school segregation. Parks had grown up during the time of the hateful Jim Crow laws, and since this was a contentious topic at the time, the magazine thought the assignment would allow Parks to take on the topic of the impact of school segregation from his point of view. His aim was to revisit his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, and locate some of his former classmates who attended the all-Black school and find out where they were at the time. Parks was able to track down nine of his former 11 classmates of the Plaza School Class of 1927. And he did, indeed, photograph them; however, for some unbeknownst reason, the photographs and the story of his visit were never published in the magazine.
But what was once silenced then has a resounding voice now. In the photo exhibit “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, many of the rare photographs Parks took in 1950 are on view, showcasing the work of a master storyteller. Though some of the images are being shown for the first time, they depict the realities of life under segregation in the 1950s, years before the Civil Rights Movement began in grave seriousness.
“This was such a personal assignment for the photographer that I think even though it didn’t appear in the pages of “Life” it spurred him to really take stock of how far he’d come — professionally, emotionally and geographically,” says Karen Haas, Kane Curator of Photographs at the MFA, Boston, since 2001.
During the course of the days Parks spent to photograph his childhood friends, he had to travel to Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; Kansas City; and St. Louis to meet up with them, as several of them had moved. He also went through about 30 rolls of film. The exhibit features 42 incredibly dignified and powerful portraits that were intended to comprise the “Life” photo essay.
Haas says there are a number of reasons that this exhibit is important, and one of the most interesting (and telling) aspects of this work is its power to speak to us today and the place it held in Parks’ celebrated career. “In the twenty-plus years since he’d left Fort Scott, this mining of his own personal story then led him to write a number of memoirs over the course of his long career, and Fort Scott became an important touchstone that he then returned to numerous times,” Haas says. “He wrote The Learning Tree (1963), a semiautobiographical novel about growing up poor and Black in Kansas, which was then made into a film, which Parks wrote and directed.”
The accompanying catalogue for the exhibition includes archival images and materials such as contact sheets and a portion of the 1927 yearbook from the Plaza School. There is an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, in which she writes: “… If every work of art is indeed a self-portrait, then these images are perhaps the closest to the man, the artist, himself.”
For more information about the exhibit, visit www.mfa.org.