Gordon Parks exhibit sheds light on race then and now

Jessica Zack, SF Gate, March 30, 2016

Unlike Gordon Parks’ now-iconic photographs depicting the harsh everyday realities of racial segregation in the pre-civil-rights South, his 1952 “A Man Becomes Invisible” series seems at first to be distinctly dissimilar to his documentary work.


A pavement-level close-up shows a man’s head emerging warily from a manhole, eyes scanning the street for trouble. In another image, the man plays records on a turntable in a cavern lit by a light bulb, the New York night skyline hovering above. On closer examination, however, these photos, which were created by Parks to illustrate scenes from Ralph Ellison’s powerful breakthrough novel “Invisible Man,” clearly stem from the same impulse that guided his more realistic photojournalism: to bring the black experience out from the shadows.


“One of the most important things to remember about Parks, no matter which images we’re looking at — his Segregation Story, or his photos of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali or the Black Panthers — is that he used his camera as a weapon to fight injustice,” says gallerist Karen Jenkins-Johnson, noting that the images are on view in the current exhibition “Gordon Parks: Higher Ground” at Jenkins Johnson Gallery.


Gordon was the first black photojournalist at Life magazine, capturing the country with a “different point of view than America was used to,” adds Jenkins-Johnson.


“I would like people to see that there is a thread connecting his ‘Invisible Man’ photos all the way to his shots of the Black Panther Party, founded 50 years ago in Oakland. The same theme applies, and it’s of people like Stokely Carmichael saying, ‘We are not taking this anymore,’” she continues, referring to the Trinidadian American civil rights activist. “I want to remind people both how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.”