When Gordon Parks photographed Duke Ellington during a television appearance in 1960, he took a series of photographs as the musician’s image flickered across control room monitors. These striking pictures would mark the beginning of Mr. Parks’s long, if relatively forgotten, relationship with television. Over the next 25 years, he directed several television documentaries and films, including a drama based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, “Twelve Years a Slave.”
Although Mr. Parks’s work in television and film was central to his oeuvre, it remains largely ignored by photo historians and curators. Yet, perhaps more than any mid-20th-century photographer, he understood how much these mediums had conditioned the contemporary eye and mind.
A new exhibition, “Gordon Parks — I Am You. Selected Works, 1942-1978,” currently on view at Foam in Amsterdam through Sept. 6, explores how Mr. Parks not only made television and Hollywood films, but also employed cinematic techniques when taking and sequencing photographs. In addition to excerpts from his movies, the exhibition surveys a wide range of his innovative photographs, from editorial and fashion work to civil rights photos and portraits.
Deborah Willis, the photo historian who has written extensively on Mr. Parks, noted that he was never content with exploring one medium. Accordingly, she argues for the importance of looking beyond photography to better assess the impact of his work.
“As artists, photographers, scholars and consumers, we are used to equating photographs with the emotional experience of reading photographic images,” said Ms. Willis. “Gordon found other art forms to tell stories about individuals, family life, work and injustice. Thus, he contributed to a broader conversation, exploring other media during a changing time.”
The exhibition, organized by Felix Hoffmann, the head curator of the C/O Berlin Foundation, examines individual images, contact sheets and photo essays to show how Mr. Parks’s “filmic thinking” challenged photography’s imperative to “unite a plot, a situation, and a mood in a single frame.” Some of his photographs attempted to transcend these decisive moments, as Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called them, by representing an event in a way that suggested its unfolding over time.
In the exhibition’s catalog, Mr. Hoffmann cited several examples of this, like the linear, frame-by-frame sequencing of a fight scene in a 1948 Life photo essay, “Harlem Gang Leader.” Perhaps stymied by the limitations of print, Mr. Parks transformed another photo essay, “Flavio,” about a 12-year-old boy’s struggle with poverty in Brazil, into a short film, in which he included both footage and photographs. To accentuate the artist’s cinematic point of view, “Gordon Parks: I Am You” includes work typically ignored by other exhibitions: excerpts from his work for film and television, including “The Learning Tree” and “Diary of a Harlem Family.” By acknowledging this work, the exhibition shows the progression of Mr. Parks’s cinematic thinking and acknowledges one of his most important and enduring legacies.
During a period when the circulation of photo-heavy magazines like Life and Look was declining, film and broadcast continued to expand their reach. Mr. Hoffmann argues that Mr. Parks’s multidisciplinary efforts — which besides television and five feature films included writing, music and choreography — were also intended to broaden his work’s public and cultural reach.
Mr. Parks’s debut feature film, “The Learning Tree,” the first major Hollywood studio movie directed by an African-American, was a semi-autobiographical, humanistic recounting of black life and racial prejudice in Depression-era Kansas. Released in 1969, the film was lauded for its lyricism and powerful social commentary. “Diary of a Harlem Family,” produced for public television in 1968, was similarly praised for its honest and respectful view of urban poverty through the experiences of one family.
Although not included in the exhibition, the artist’s 1971 feature film, “Shaft,” was even more revolutionary. It told the story of a suave African-American private investigator, John Shaft, hired by a Harlem gangster to rescue a daughter kidnapped by Italian mobsters. The film challenged Hollywood’s negative and subservient view of African-Americans, introducing the black action hero into mainstream cinema. Its violent content and what some have criticized as stereotypical black characters led some critics to dismiss “Shaft” as a “blaxploitation” film. But its empowered and confident black protagonist, as well as its heroic story line, were trailblazing.
The political content of these movies and programs was also consistent with that of Mr. Parks’s civil rights photographs. From their themes of social justice and appeal to empathy — which the artist believed was vital to challenging negative stereotypes by reminding viewers of our shared humanity — to their focus on confident black characters, the films advanced the social issues explored in some of his photographs.
Peter Kunhardt, Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, welcomes this interdisciplinary approach, noting that over the next decade the organization will catalog the artist’s films, television programs, music and writing to “help shape a cohesive understanding of his many talents and work.”
In the end, to understand these works in relationship to each other, as “Gordon Parks: I Am You” has done, is to grasp the collective brilliance of the artist’s work — the power of his imagery, which depicted people of all races in multiple media, to influence a broad national and international audience.
“Gordon’s early work as a photographer developed his eye and transitioned him into film directing,” said Mr. Kunhardt. “He is often called a ‘Renaissance man’ because he worked in so many different media, but I like to refer to him as a humanitarian artist who used whatever medium he could to have an impact.”