Catalogue of the Exhibition at High Museum of Art Atlanta, 2014/2015
In September 1956 Life published a photo-essay by Gordon Parks entitled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” which documented the everyday activities and rituals of one extended African American family living in the rural South under Jim Crow segregation. One of the most powerful photographs depicts Joanne Thornton Wilson and her niece, Shirley Anne Kirksey standing in front of a theater in Mobile, Alabama, an image which became a forceful “weapon of choice,” as Parks would say, in the struggle against racism and segregation. While twenty-six photographs were eventually published in Life and some were exhibited in his lifetime, the bulk of Parks’s assignment was thought to be lost. In 2011, five years after Parks’s death, The Gordon Parks Foundation discovered more than seventy color transparencies at the bottom of an old storage bin marked “Segregation Series” that are now published for the first time in The Segregation Story.
Gordon Parks was born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. An itinerant laborer, he worked as a brothel pianist and railcar porter, among other jobs, before buying a camera at a pawnshop, training himself, and becoming a photographer. In addition to his storied tenures at the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information (1941–1945) and Life (1948–1972), Parks was a modern-day Renaissance man who found success as a film director, author and composer. The first African-American director to helm a major motion picture, he popularized the Blaxploitation genre through his film “Shaft” (1971). He wrote numerous memoirs, novels and books of poetry and received many awards, including the National Medal of Arts and more than fifty honorary degrees. In 1997 the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., mounted his retrospective exhibition “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks.” Parks died in 2006.