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Art Review

Resonance Man

Eloquent photographer depicts the Depression and the New Deal in images that deftly capture the struggle of poverty, equity and race in the U.S.

November 11, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

As a social documentarian, Gordon Parks enjoys a well-deserved reputation. The photographer, now 88, recorded a remarkable array of ordinary and extraordinary lives throughout his distinguished career, including his long tenure (1948 to 1970) as a staff photographer for Life magazine.

Nothing, however, speaks more eloquently of an artist's significance than an encounter with a work made decades ago that still resonates dramatically with the present day. One such photograph comes early on in "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," the large and absorbing retrospective exhibition now at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. Just around the corner from the show's entrance, a work from 1942, the year the former railroad worker moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to pursue his growing interest in photographic storytelling, steps forward to clarify some of what has been at stake in the just-concluded presidential campaign.

"Negro Woman in Her Bedroom, Washington (Southwest Section), D.C." displays its ample subject in profile seated on a neatly made bed, with her feet planted firmly and her arms stretched out at her sides. It takes a moment to realize that we are not looking at the woman directly. Instead, her image is being reflected in a circular mirror, whose close-up shape echoes against a second round mirror in the distance, set atop a dressing table at the back of the room.

Parks has used his camera to focus our direct gaze on the relationship between two optical objects found in the woman's modestly appointed bedroom. First is the mirror, in which a poor black woman daily sees herself reflected. Second is a photograph, an official portrait of the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that she has chosen to hang on the wall right next to and slightly above the mirror. It's easy to imagine the anonymous woman's common activity of looking in the mirror to fix her hair or adjust her clothing and seeing Roosevelt out of the corner of her eye.

Parks' black and white photograph is like a poignant modern memory of Baroque-era play between gods and mortals in classical mythology. In 1942 there's, of course, the matter of the war abroad, and of the fate of nations in a ferocious battle between good and evil. But there's also an epic struggle rooted in a similar dichotomy at home--a struggle about poverty, equity and racism.

Parks, like the woman in the picture, must have had a special consciousness of his own relationship to Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who started the documentary photography program for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1935, a legendary project that had two goals. One was to record for posterity the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. The other was to create a bank of images (more than 60,000 were made) reflecting poverty and the plight of the needy that could help influence public opinion in the administration's gargantuan task of implementing the New Deal. Parks, along with Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and others, became an FSA photographer.

When you consider "Negro Woman in Her Bedroom" as a social document, you see one eloquently considered aspect of a situation that was critically important nearly 60 years ago. Now that the photograph is a historical document as well, however, it also gives texture and meaning to the present. Central to Tuesday's contest in the election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush was their sharp philosophical disagreement about the legacy of the New Deal and federalism. Parks' photograph shows what's at stake on the day-to-day level of human existence, and it reveals some roots of the ongoing debate.

The picture was made around the same time as the one that is perhaps Parks' most famous image. He posed Ella Watson, a bespectacled black charwoman working in a federal office, alone before an American flag with a broom at her side. The composition collapsed into one haunting figure the famous dour couple with a pitchfork in "American Gothic," Grant Woods' pinched ode to the beleaguered dignity of farm life. Parks was just 30, yet both of these photographs demonstrate a sophisticated formal methodology for making sense of complex social subject matter.

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The retrospective, organized by Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, shows Parks' aesthetic strategy to be distinctly Modernist. His photographs tend to be frontal, with the subject aligned in harmony with the picture plane. Flat shapes, especially basic ones like circles, squares, ovals and triangles, get emphasized. Pictorial space is mostly shallow, while illusions of deep space are often created through cleverly crafted surface pattern. Diagonal compositions sometimes add an element of geometric counterpoint.

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