Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks
The Library of Congress; Introduction by Charles Johnson. Series statement by W. Ralph Eubanks. Series editor Amy Pastan
64 pages, 180 x 180 mm (7 1/8 x 7 1/8 in.)
50 colour illustrations, softback
Publication date: September 2011 (UK and USA)
Publisher: D Giles Limited, in association with the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
Gordon Parks once said that “Beauty is, where beauty is…could be on a mountainside, could be a beautiful woman, could be a leopard in the jungle.” From his fashion photography with Life magazine to his creative activism in the documentation of African-American life during the Civil Right era, this giant of American photography used his impeccable eye to archive and capture beauty in the moment, and to transform (with monochrome poignancy) everyday reality into art.
In his pursuit of beauty, so many fascinating stories have been told, and from this small but perfectly formed book, Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks, we find a few more. This time, rare images that Gordon Parks captured as the first and only Black photographer for the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information (FSA-OWI), who sought to document American life during the years from the Great Depression through to World War II.
The FSA collection, now housed at the Library of Congress (LoC), is a testament to the power of the archive as a critical resource for reconstructing histories of social dynamics and cultural identity. This small collection from Gordon Parks’s legacy is one of several books produced by the LoC, focussed on the work of FSA photographers, in this series called Fields of Vision. This book includes an introduction by novelist Professor Charles Johnson, and offers 50 photographs taken by Parks, predominantly in Washington DC, during the early 1940’s.
In this collection, Parks poetically captures the subtle moments of African-American and European working class life – in the church, on the streets, at the docks – which present unique visual contrasts, coincidences and contradictions: Picture 38, for example, is a portrait of an African-American police officer, captured in May 1943 in New York. As the viewer looks from below up at this man’s weary but stoic eyes, they might ask: Who is he? What are the challenges he faces in that uniform? Is he truly free or simply just another number as the ‘19687’ on his badge (and in the picture’s title) concurs?
In picture 49, we simply have the back view from a doorway of a child on crutches with an amputated leg, facing the street where he once played before a car took his leg off. The two girls we see in the distance on the doorstep of the house opposite (perhaps his former friends) seem timid, even reluctant to continue the games that brought about this boy’s tragedy – the joys of childhood now brutally cut short.
These are some of the stories that emerge from Parks’s lens – demanding empathy and ennobling each subject beyond the social constrictions of race and class.
Photographer Ansel Adams once said that “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” I highly recommend this book, for the conversations that one experiences with Gordon Parks, without words. Perhaps buy it as a gift for a friend, or simply sit on a quiet Sunday afternoon and be transported back in space and time, to moments of glorious humanity.