Gordon Parks’ “Segregation Series”

Posted on June 17th, 2013 by

’42 Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks has had his photography featured in the New York Times online “Lens” section a couple times recently, following the surprising discovery of over 70 color transparencies by the Gordon Parks Foundation showing the daily life of African Americans in mid-1950s Alabama. These photographs comrpise a set that he called the “Segregation Series.” Some of them were published in LIFE Magazine but the complete set of originals was thought to be lost until now.

The latest Lens blog post tells about Joanne Wilson, who was the subject of an iconic photo by Parks that showed her standing in front of the prominently marked “Colored Entrance” to an Alabama movie theater with her niece. In contrast to the more commonly seen photographs highlighting Jim Crow injustices, which were typically black and white and showed overt oppression, this beautifully colored image shows the “prosaic” side of life under segregation. Ms. Wilson was recently honored at the Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner.

Another of Parks’ subjects in the “Segregation Series,” Allie Lee and Willie Causey, were strongly censured and even threatened by their white neighbors for expressing pro-integration sentiments in the LIFE article. Both ended up losing their livelihoods and were forced to move away from their hometown. A followup article in LIFE Magazine, viewable here thanks to Google Books, tells about the intense antagonism in the small community towards the Causeys. It’s worth a read; it paints an extraordinary picture of the dynamics of rural Alabama life during Jim Crow.

Maren Stange on the set
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

We caught up with Maren Stange (an expert on social documentary photography and the author of Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks) last Friday (June 7th) in New York to film an interview about Parks’ career. Stange described Parks’ early days in Chicago (during the 1930s) where he caught the eye of the Rosenwald Fund with a provocative exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center that juxtaposed portraits of Chicago high society (both black and white) with gritty photographs of the stark conditions in what was known as the “Black Belt” in Chicago. Parks used the resulting grant from the Rosenwald Fund to go to work as a documentary photographer for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C., where he quickly began work on his iconic “Story of Mrs. Ella Watson,” a government charwoman that Parks photographed at her daily activities over the course of a month. Stange summed up Parks’ style and drew a very clear line between his early social realism, his masterful portrait-making (including great photos of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and his early Chicago patron, Marva Louis), his in-depth stories for LIFE magazine (like the “Segregation Series”) and his later fashion photography (which was the subject of a great Lens post by Deborah Willis back in November).

An image from Gordon Parks’ Ella Watson series
Photo credit: U.S. Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress
(You can view the full series at LOC’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog)

By Michael Rose

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