A perplexed giraffe peers from behind a woman bundled in a purple printed headscarf. She’s holding an umbrella, whose pattern of brown shapes framed by yellow borders mimics that of the animal. Photographer Gordon Parks captured the giraffe mid side-eyed glance, as if it’s thinking, “who is this woman and why is she stealing my look?” In a nearby image, a woman wearing a tiered wedding cake of a red ball gown, her diamond barrette like frosting, nestles into her date. They’re standing in the middle of busy Park Avenue, but they might as well be the only two people in the world.
Parks, who was the first black photographer on staff at both Vogue and Life magazines, is best known for the photo essays he shot for the latter, where, wielding the camera that he referred to as his “choice of weapon,” he created searing portraits of black life in the years before and during the Civil Rights movement. The aforementioned photos — “Untitled, San Diego, California” (1959), and “Evening Wraps” (1956) — are just two examples of a lesser-known facet of Parks’s practice, one that included fashion and event photography, as well as portraits of artist friends that were as slyly funny as they were intimate. All of these are included in Gordon Parks: I Am You, a two-part exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, the first installment of which showcases Parks as fashion and fine art photographer.
The same incisive eye that captured, in saturated color, the indignity of waiting in line to drink from a water fountain, while another, labeled “white only” sat unused, infuriatingly out of reach, also shot fashion editorials and portraits of artist friends like Alberto Giacometti and Helen Frankenthaler. Parks also did street style photography long before the current crop of influencers could hold a camera. His camera-weapon could document it all, with intimacy, sharpness, and occasionally, humor.
The show begins with playfully, with black-and-white glimpses of Giacometti interacting with his long-limbed sculptures. In “Falling Man, Paris, France” (1956), a single, seemingly disembodied hand reaches out to Giacometti’s skeletal, sculptural figure, evoking Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Parks uses the sculptures’ outstretched limbs to frame Giacometti, who sits beneath them. He looks in awe of, and dwarfed by, his creations. His 1959 portrait of painter Helen Frankenthaler follows a similar pattern. Frankenthaler sits in between her giant canvases, smaller and out of focus, where her work is bright and colorful, commanding the space.
By contrast, nothing overshadows Eartha Kitt. In “Eartha Kitt Performs at The Blue Angel” (1952), Kitt, in shimmering satin, sings, one hand on her hip, the other held up as if to say “stop.”The audience is hidden, but there’s no doubt they’re entirely under Kitt’s control.
Parks is a master of angles, conjuring emotion through geometry, whether it’s Kitt, or the anonymous woman in “Untitled, Chicago, Illinois” (1950). She leans at a window, holding a cigarette and leaning toward the street, face directly in the light, arms bent. Her eyes are pointed toward something we can’t see. Parks leaves just enough mystery to make me long to know what the smoking woman was looking at and thinking about, and wondering how she got in the perfect frame.
The same attention to position at framing is on display in “Toni Riddleberger Talks About a Boyfriend” (1951). In it, Riddleberger hangs off an armchair, enveloped in a blanket of black and white light, while she talks on a rotary phone. She’s facing downward, so her expression is hidden; only the sculptural waves of her hair are visible, her body framed by the back of the chair, and the white light streaming from the french doors next to her. The pose felt achingly familiar, conjuring memories of perching on my own teenage bed, toward a landline on the floor.
The photo captures intimacy without intrusion, a through-line of Parks’s practice that connects the seemingly different sides of his work, from fashion and performance photography to his photojournalism. That work taught America uncomfortable lessons about itself, bringing the realities of racism and poverty into the living rooms of people who would have preferred to bask in the glow of post-World War II American supremacy. Parks’s fashion photography, while less well-known, is just as revealing.
Gordon Parks, I Am You, Part 1 runs through February 10 at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). Gordon Parks, I Am You, Part 2 opens February 15 and runs through March 24.