Jesse’s book review – Bare Witness by Gordon Parks
Jesse’s book reviews are fast becoming one of my favourite pieces. Wonderful books and thoughtful discussion about them. This weeks book is thought provoking and shows a period in American history that should not ever be forgotten.
Bare Witness is my rarest but more importantly prized photo book I own. When I got into photography and started discovering the various photographers and styles, I was a bit discouraged by the lack of famous African American photographers.
Gordon Parks is certainly a name I have always known from watching Shaft, a film that was in ways the first black superhero film coming out in 72’. His first film was autobiographical called The Learning Tree which was the first film to be written and directed by an African American receiving a Hollywood budget. His other was a biopic on the tragedy of the blues player Lead Belly. Kurt Cobain expressed disappointment on his unplugged album at not being able to purchase the great musicians guitar before covering his song Where did you Sleep Last Night? With this it should also be noted that Parks also had 14 books published during his lifetime and composed symphonies in Europe.
You can imagine my amazement when I received a comment on one of my photos I took of my family back in Baltimore being compared to Gordon Parks. I think I responded, “thanks but this is a long way away from Shaft” and he responded, “No, like his photographs.” A Google search later and I was blown away at what I found. Not only was he an amazing photographer, he was the first African American Life photographer and worked on such various projects as Roy Stryker’s FSA photo project to Vogue magazine. The thing I instantly recognized about his photos was his universality that transcended what not only what a genre specific photographer could do but what an African American could do as a photographer at a time even before the civil rights.
With a lengthy introduction, there are 72 plates in all covering his various assignments. Before I start examining photos from the book, I want to point out just how he got started in photography. It was said, he attended a WWII screening at a movie theatre and was struck by the images and the courage it took to sit there and photograph a US ship as it was sinking. The photographer happened to be in attendance and received a standing ovation. Inspired he went and bought a camera from money he earned from composing and playing music. He bought two rolls and shot seagulls off a pier and got them developed. The developer for Eastman Kodak remarked how great this work was and offered him an exhibition after he shot some more.
I have seen these images and the mood of the seagulls in the dark skies of bleak nothingness carried the feeling of Fukase’s ravens. Really amazing for someone’s first roll! Right after his exhibition he went to a major fashion shop and offered his services as a fashion photographer. The guy immediately said no, but his wife overheard and told him ok and asked what he needed. He muttered 3 models and outfits…and went home in a panic. He borrowed some equipment that night did the shoot and double exposed all but one shot. He blew up the one shot and left it at their shop before it opened on an easel. They were astonished by the beauty of the sole shot and asked for the rest and after being honest they suggested doing it again. From there, Joe Lewis’s wife saw the photos and months later he was set up in Chicago.
Work then didn’t come so he shot the poverty in Chicago which came to the attention of Roy Striker head of the FSA that was doing that monumental project in the 1930s on the depression. He found himself in Washington and was told by Stryker to go out and buy a nice over coat from a store down the street and have lunch at a restaurant across the street from the Capital and come back. Of course he was turned away at the shop and told to go around back to eat his meal as blacks weren’t allowed in the restaurant. He went back to Stryker who having made his point asked Parks what he would say about this with his camera. Leaving the office he passed a black janitor Ella Watson and asked to take her photo, which led to the famous symbolic photo of her holding a mop and broom in front of the American flag (the very first image of this book).Watson does not wear a smile on her face and the photo is shot with a shallow focus so that American flag is obscured. The symbolism suggests what the African American role in the US was reduced to with the allegorical reading of Freedom represented by the American flag out of focus literally, yet symbolically for us.
Another photo I’d like to talk about is the one below. This was shot on assignment for Life. The riots of the south were already being extensively shot so the idea was to choose a normal black family living under segregation and depict their daily life. This photo could be understood as going to or leaving church with the mother drinking from a COLORED ONLY fountain, with the WHITE ONLY fountain next to it. There is a duality with the two fountains and the black mother and daughter dressed in all white. The daughter with her hands on her hip looks through the window as we view them through what can be taken as a car window. This essay led to the family being run out of town by the KKK and the editor of Life giving the family a new home and 25,000 dollars while going back to the city to try to reason. The only response they got was that, “if the family came back they would be hung and if that N***** photographer of yours comes back we will hang him too.” These are the conditions under which he photographed.
The next photo shot during the same time depict much of the same sentiments. On the left there is a teenager staring out his door with a gun across his lap. In the background perfectly framed by the doorway are his siblings huddled together. The look of the young man is stern as he attempts to fight for his family’s existence during the racial violence in Alabama. On the right is another family appearing before the poverty board. In the foreground and out of focus (like the janitor photo) is a faceless clerk who represents the governmental powers that will decide if this family is poor enough to receive help. The mother baring all the weight is looking straight into this power with a weathered look. Her eldest son rests a hand on her shoulder. A younger son leans on her for support while the youngest sits on her lap. Her daughter to the right sucks her thumb too staring at the faceless clerk. All of these images, much against photography theory, perfectly illustrate stories, using every single element of mood, composition, and focus to convey the conditions of his subjects.
While doing all of this it is amazing to point out he was living in Paris doubling as a fashion photographer for Vogue. He said at the time it was hard composing the red of a woman’s dress for Vogue that was the same color of red that poured out of a black kid’s head in the American south or Harlem. He was soon moved to the Life Paris office shooting celebrities, while writing scores for Italian symphonies. This brings us to another one of my favorite images that is of Ingrid Bergman. She was THE star of the time and had just left her family to be with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. One can imagine the scandal at a time of the conservatism of the 50s. They were shooting a film in Stromboli and Rossellini had all of the press removed. It was only Parks who was asked to shoot them as his reputation for his sensitivity in was appreciated on behalf of celebrities. The photo shows Bergman plainly dressed at the bottom foreground as she looks over her shoulder. Three slightly out of focus women are in the shot’s mid-ground looking at her. This touch of being slightly out of focus abstracts the women into representative figures of what could be taken as nuns. This religious aspect conjures up feelings of morality and by doing so depicts morality staring her down as she goes the opposite way on the same path. This path leads the eye from Bergman, to the three, to the background anchoring the entire composition. It is just an amazing shot really…
I could go on, but the idea I think has been put forth. So much goes into his photography and that Life concept of telling stories through photos is all done perfectly through Parks. I find it frustrating the lack of photo books on Parks’ work. Bare Witness was in fact the only one of his that I have seen for sale on the internet and currently goes for 33,000 yen or 250 dollars used on Amazon. He does have a five volume set by publisher Steidl that I have never seen for sale. Perhaps with this, the easiest introduction to Parks can be found on YouTube by watching his documentary Half Past Autumn…
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Many thanks Jesse, another brilliant and thoughtful review. This is a book that I am definitely going to buy.