Trove of Gordon Parks “study sets” comes to Yale Library
November 9, 2021
Yale University Library’s Beinecke Library has acquired a collection of more than 200 prints by renowned American photographer Gordon Parks. The prints, acquired directly from The Gordon Parks Foundation, constitute one of the largest collections of the photographer’s work available for study in an institution.
Designated as “study sets,” the group represents selections from eleven of Parks’s best known series created throughout his celebrated career. Images from Washington D.C. in 1942 include a print created in Parks’s lifetime of his single best-known work—a portrait of Ella Watson, an African American custodial worker, titled American Gothic. Other series include a 1947 feature for Ebony on psychologist team Mamie and Kenneth Clark, whose research on the effects of segregation on Black children influenced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education; Parks’s Invisible Man collaboration with Ralph Ellison; 1963 images of the growing Civil Rights Movement; and images from Parks’s multiple portrait sessions with heavyweight prizefighter Muhammad Ali.
The remaining sets are drawn from six projects created for Life magazine, where Parks was hired in 1948 as the first Black photographer on staff: Harlem Gang Leader (1948), the story that landed him a staff position at the magazine; Back to Fort Scott (1950), images captured on a return visit to his Kansas hometown; Segregation Story (1956), documenting Jim Crow in Mobile, Alabama and its surrounds; The Atmosphere of Crime (1957), which trained his lens on racism in policing and criminalization; The Flávio Story (1961), featuring a boy living in one of Rio’s favelas; and The Cycle of Despair: The Negro and the City (1967), a project on poverty in Harlem featuring Parks’s famous portraits of the Fontenelle family. More than 50 of the prints were printed under Parks’s supervision in his lifetime. The remainder are new limited edition prints issued by the Gordon Parks Foundation.
“Since its inception The Gordon Parks Foundation’s mission has focused on supporting programs and educational activities that echo Parks’s belief that art can advance social justice,” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director of the Parks Foundation. “By placing these study sets at Yale, we hope to enable students and researchers from not only Yale, but also the New Haven community and the world, to share in Gordon’s vision through his extraordinary work.” Beinecke Library plans to share the prints frequently in its classrooms and in open houses for the greater New Haven community.
“Gordon Parks is deservedly one of the most celebrated photographers in American history,” said Melissa Barton, Curator of Drama and Prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature and a curator of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters. “Reviewing more than 200 of his images all together is a deeply moving experience. Every opportunity to share these exquisite photographs will be a thrill. We hope they will also inspire important conversations about the past, present, and future of inequality in the U.S. and around the world, about how Gordon Parks as an artist responded to and tried to reshape that world, in many cases through the popular press,” Barton said.
The prints will join the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, whose strength in photography also includes significant groups of photographs by James Van Der Zee and Roy De Carava, as well as thousands of portraits of notable African Americans by Carl Van Vechten, a white photographer, patron of the arts, and founder of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Beinecke’s collections also include photography documenting Harlem and the civil rights movement by Lucien Aigner, Robert Elfstrom, and Aaron Siskind, as well as Parks’s Life colleagues Shelley and Carl Mydans, and documentary photographers Harry Adams, Eve Arnold, and Inge Morath. “These photographs join a rich context documenting African American lives, both visually and textually, in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection,” said Nancy Kuhl, Curator of Poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature and co-curator with Barton of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. “Melissa and I are honored to steward the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, and constantly humbled by its extraordinary depth and scope, the way it connects us to a past that is still surprisingly within reach.”
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of all we strive to do in Yale Library,” said Michelle Light, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Director of the Beinecke Library. “Providing access to is central to fulfilling those commitments. Gordon Parks’s work provides an amazing window into African American history, which is American history. My colleagues and I are energized as we imagine the impact these materials will have in teaching and learning at Yale as well as in the New Haven community.”
Parks—a celebrated American photographer, writer, and filmmaker—is strongly associated with documentary photojournalism of the postwar period. He worked for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information on government documentary projects and published photographs as a freelance photographer for major glossy magazines, including Glamour and Ebony, before making his name as a staff photographer for Life beginning in the late 1940s. He was the first Black American to hold that position. During this time, he created some of his most memorable images, ranging from images of the growing civil rights movement to portraits of notable Americans. American Gothic, created while Parks was at the start of his career at the Farm Security Administration, is a response to Grant Wood’s well-known painting of the same name. The photograph features custodian Ella Watson standing stoically in front of a large American flag, holding a broom and mop that replace the farmer’s pitchfork in Wood’s painting. A renaissance man who wrote fiction and non-fiction, Parks became in 1969 the first Black American to direct a studio feature with The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel of his childhood in Kansas. His next directing effort was much better remembered—Shaft. It spawned an entire genre known as blaxploitation.
The library expects to have the prints catalogued and open for research and teaching by late spring 2022. Visit the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Beinecke Library website.
—by Mike Morand