Howard University acquires photographs from influential black photographer Gordon Parks

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Early in his prolific and influential career, photographer Gordon Parks documented daily life in Washington, DC, including Howard University events and students.

Eighty years later, the historically black university in the heart of the district has acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of Parks photographs. The treasure of 252 images represents both his artistic achievement and his importance as a documentarian of African-American life in the second half of the 20th century. Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93.

The Gordon Parks Legacy Collection will be housed in the university’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where students and faculty – in history, African-American studies and the arts – will be able to access the images for classroom work , research, exhibitions and public programs.

The acquisition raises the university’s profile and will lead to important research and exposure, said Benjamin Talton, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. The collection, beginning with 1940s portraits of black Chicago and Minneapolis residents and ending with a 1990 portrait of Spike Lee, is an important addition to an archive that includes documents from Amiri Baraka, Mary Frances Berry, Paul Robeson and Frederick Douglass.

“Gordon Parks was part of the beginning of telling the story of African American life and bringing humanity to that story,” Talton said. “Howard University is at the center of the African-American experience in the world. Obviously, black life meant something to Gordon Parks. It’s a foot in a shoe, and I think he would be pleased.

The photographs were specifically chosen by the university and staff of the Gordon Parks Foundation for their educational value from among the thousands the foundation possesses, explained Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the foundation. A combination of purchase and donation (financial details were not disclosed), the acquisition marks the start of a partnership that will be celebrated on May 19 at the foundation’s annual awards dinner in New York. .

“The arc of this collection leans into black pride. It chronicles his career in a way students can relate to,” Kunhardt said. “He’s not just a portrait painter. He’s a humanitarian. his camera to show poverty and despair.His photos might be harsh, but they told a story.

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Born in Fort Scott, Kan., Parks had not completed high school and had no formal training in photography. He began documenting African American life in the 1940s, including a stint in Washington in 1942 when he worked for the Farm Security Administration. Some of his photographs of the city from this period are included in the acquisition.

He captured everyday life in the Jim Crow South and in the neighborhoods of Harlem, Chicago and Washington. He worked as a fashion photographer for Vogue and Ebony magazines, and in 1948 he was hired by Life magazine, where he spent two decades producing landmark photographic essays focusing on race, poverty and the struggle for civil rights.

Parks has photographed major artists and civil rights leaders including Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Miles Davis. He also wrote books, composed music, and was the first African American to direct a major film, “The Learning Tree” in 1969. His 1971 film, “Shaft,” launched a film noir genre.

Parks donated over 200 photographs to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1998, the year after the private museum presented an acclaimed retrospective of his career. Most of the images were presented in this exhibition; they are now in the National Gallery of Art. Parks also donated photographs, films, manuscripts, and musical compositions to the Library of Congress.

With his camera, Gordon Parks humanized black people whom others saw as mere criminals

Howard’s acquisition builds on those collections, Talton said.

“These are not just photographs, they are studies. Gordon Parks immersed himself in Chicago, in Harlem, in Washington, in Rio de Janeiro,” Talton said. “It’s about the art, but it’s about Gordon Parks the person. It’s about technique, light and angles, but also diving into the second half of the 20th century.

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