Gordon Parks’ cinematic photos captured the injustices of the civil rights era

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CNN  — 

He photographed fashion for Vogue, directed the 1971 blaxploitation film “Shaft,” composed orchestral scores, and wrote memoirs, novels and poems. But it was with his sensitive, insightful documentary photos of black America that Gordon Parks made himself one of the 20th century’s most important cultural figures.

It’s this contribution that New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery is revisiting with Gordon Parks: I am You | Part 2.” The exhibition follows a month-long look at look at the photographer’s lesser known work with portraiture and fashion photography.

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks worked his way from advertising and portrait gigs in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Chicago to an apprenticeship with the Farm Security Administration and, in the mid-1940s, a post as Vogue’s first black photographer.

In 1948, he made history again when he became the first black staff photographer at Life magazine, a position he would hold for two decades. He would go on to fill the magazine’s pages with photo essays of black life in the segregated south as well as northern states. Eventually, he would photograph the great leaders of the civil rights era, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, and those who rallied behind them.

"Untitled, Washington, D.C." (1963)

“(Parks) went through so much scrutiny as a African-American photographer and as an African-American in general, and wanted to have his voice heard,” Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, said in a phone interview. “He felt that, by picking up a camera and using his creative works, he could tell a story and show the injustices of America.”

It would seem that, in the current political moment, his work has taken new urgency. According to Kunhardt, the foundation has “absolutely” seen an increase in requests related to both exhibitions and education opportunities recently. (The Foundation offers scholarships and fellowship opportunities, and hosts education programs.)

“Gordon’s now been dead for 12 years, and I’m certain that if you were still around he would say that that that dialogue has to continue on today, and that’s what we’re doing with the foundation,” said Kunhardt.

“His fight was never over and his struggle to end racial segregation and the ability for everyone’s voice to be heard would be louder right now given what’s happening in this country right now. This struggle is not over.”

"Doll Test, Harlem, New York" (1947)

Last summer, 12-time Grammy-winner Kendrick Lamar reinforced the point when he recreated scenes from some of Parks’ most memorable photos in the video for his single “ELEMENT.” For two and a half months, stills from the video were on displayed alongside the images that inspired them at the Gordon Parks Foundation headquarters in Pleasantville, New York.

Kunhardt, who considers Lamar a “friend of the foundation,” called the rapper’s appropriation a work of “pure genius and creativity.” (Lamar will host the Foundation’s annual awards gala with Alicia Keys and producer Swizz Beatz later this year.)

"Untitled, Harlem, New York" (1963)

“What he did in his appropriations, you couldn’t have commissioned someone to do that. He was taking Gordon as a legendary figure in the African-American historical context and using him in such a contemporary way that brought millions and millions of eyes to him that would not necessarily have ever known who Gordon Parks was,” Kunhardt said.

“There are so many contemporary artists – and I don’t just mean painters and sculptors, but I also mean musicians and choreographers to poets and writers – who are doing their work today because of what Gordon was able to pave the way to. And they feel so strongly that that Gordon needs to be honored and recognized for having a voice at a time where that voice was much harder to have heard.”

“Gordon Parks: I am You | Part 2” is on at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York until March 24, 2017.