A retrospective of the photographs of Kansas native Gordon Parks goes on display at the Ulrich Museum of Art next weekend. Documents, letters and manuscripts covering the expanse of Parks' life also will be part of the exhibit, titled "Crossroads: The Art of Gordon Parks."
The 75 photographs and more than 60 documents come from the collections of several organizations, including the Howard Greenburg Gallery in New York, the Gordon Parks Foundation, The Kansas African American Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.
Ulrich director Patricia McDonnell gives much of the credit for pulling the exhibit together to Ted Ayres, WSU's vice president and general counsel and a former interim director of the Ulrich.
"Ted led the cause to bring Gordon Parks' important personal papers to Wichita," McDonnell said. "With that campaign, WSU became Gordon Parks central and, in effect, the Ulrich Museum began the effort to build a reputable Gordon Parks photography collection."
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It was in 1999, when Ayres was named interim director, that the Ulrich celebrated its 25th anniversary and purchased four works by Parks for its permanent collection. The outpouring of admiration and support for Parks that followed convinced Ayres that the museum should focus on showcasing his works.
Parks was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word, Ayres said. Not only was he a photographer, but he was also a writer, poet, choreographer, composer, musician and filmmaker.
One of Ayres' favorite stories about Parks came from one of his memoirs, "Choice of Weapons," he said. It recounts that Parks, the 15th child of a poor African-American family in Fort Scott, went to live at age 15 with his sister and her husband in Minneapolis after his mother died.
"Three months later his brother-in-law threw him out in the cold and Parks found himself on his own, having to support himself," Ayres said. "He scraped by with various jobs and eventually bought himself a camera. With so much working against him, including segregation, he could have been violent and could have resorted to a desperate life, but he chose instead to use his camera as his weapon. His camera was his weapon that he used to fight back and tell the story and to educate and inform."
During the Depression, Parks worked for the Farm Securities Administration photographing and documenting American life. One of his iconic images, "American Gothic," was taken during this period. The photograph is of a woman named Ella Watson, who was cleaning the FSA office building while Parks worked there.
"With her mop and broom in front of the American flag, the photo tells this huge, magnificent story of her life," Ayres said. "It is a depiction of America — how it was."
After the Depression, Parks worked for Vogue doing high-fashion photography, a position never before held by an African-American. He soon moved to Life magazine, where he worked until 1972. The powerful images he took there make up a large portion of the exhibit.
"Parks was an activist with his camera," McDonnell said. "He was the one who could tell the stories of what it was like to be an African-American in the '40s through the '60s, when the civil rights movement reached its height.
"By creatively capturing this period of history, we have an extraordinary reflection of this cultural phenomenon."
Yet Parks never seemed impressed by his own achievements and fame, Ayres said.
"It is so important to remember that Parks was a Kansan and came from humble beginnings," he said. "Because of the power of family, he achieved international celebrity but never became larger than he really was in his own mind. He kept into perspective what life was all about."
If you go
'Crossroads: The Art of Gordon Parks'
What: Photographs, letters, documents and manuscripts from the life of Kansas native Gordon Parks
Where: Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University
When: Opening reception 7-9 p.m. Sat. Free for members, $7 nonmembers. Exhibit will be on display through April 11. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Closed Mondays.
How much: Gallery admission free.
For more information, call 316-978-3664.