Yale Daily News

Over 200 prints by renowned Black photographer Gordon Parks now lie in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collections. The prints, which constitute one of the largest collections of his work available for study, were directly acquired from The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Born into segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks worked as a photographer mainly in the 1940s through 1970s. In 1948, he became the first Black person to hold the position of staff photographer at Life magazine and received several awards, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. 

“Gordon Parks is a legendary photographer of Black life, especially in the era of legal segregation,” said Melissa Barton, curator of drama and prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature and curator for the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters. 

Through his work, Parks brought the experiences of Black workers and families during the time of racial segregation and the Great Depression to an enormous viewership. His photographs capture various aspects of Black life: some works find beauty in everyday life, some make shrewd and ironic commentaries on race and class oppression and others reveal the structural inequalities at the heart of American society. 

According to Barton, the collection showcases Parks’ versatility, one of his lesser-known traits. Additionally, many of the topics addressed in his works “remain all too relevant today, from his complex portraits of the lives of low income and working class Black Americans, to his exploration of racism in policing,” Barton said. 

“This is a thrilling acquisition,” Jennifer Raab, associate professor in the history of art, wrote in an email to the News. “Gordon Parks is among the most important American artists of the twentieth century. … His photographs enable us to see how daily life can itself offer small acts of resistance against pervasive racism.”

According to the Beinecke library, the new collection represents selections from 11 of Parks’s best-known series created throughout his career. Images from Washington D.C. in 1942 include his single best-known work — a portrait of Ella Watson, a Black custodial worker, titled “American Gothic.” 

Other series include a 1947 feature for Ebony magazine on the team of psychologists Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark, whose research on the effects of segregation on Black children influenced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Parks’ “Invisible Man” collaboration with novelist Ralph Ellison, 1963 images of the growing civil rights movement and photos from Parks’ multiple portrait sessions with heavyweight prizefighter Muhammad Ali. The remaining sets are drawn from six projects created for Life magazine. 

Barton said that the Beinecke library plans to make the collection available for teaching and research by the end of spring 2022. 

“We anticipate that Parks’ work will attract students from a wide range of disciplines, from art historians studying photography to African American studies, American studies and history students looking at the history of social movements, Jim Crow, racist policing, photojournalism and the role of ‘Life,’” Barton said.

Raab, who specializes in American art and the history of photography, said that “it will be a privilege to teach from [the] collection.”

“Parks’ photographs have a dynamic elegance that is immediately riveting, but they are never spectacularizing,” Raab said. “It’s through the prosaic that they make their incisive critique. And this is what makes them particularly powerful to talk about in the classroom.”

“Since its inception The Gordon Parks Foundation’s mission has focused on supporting programs and educational activities that echo Parks’ belief that art can advance social justice,” Executive Director of the Parks Foundation Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said in a Yale Library article. “By placing these study sets at Yale, we hope to enable students and researchers from not only Yale, but also the New Haven community and the world, to share in [Parks’] vision through his extraordinary work.” 

The prints will join the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters at the Beinecke library.