Arts & Culture

3 Wichita exhibits offer ‘deep dive’ into Gordon Parks’ work (+video)

VIDEO: The Gordon Parks photo that started an odyssey

Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Karen Haas describes how one Gordon Parks photograph became the beginning of a search for other unpublished works of Parks' Fort Scott elementary school classmates. (Mike Hutmacher)
Up Next
Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Karen Haas describes how one Gordon Parks photograph became the beginning of a search for other unpublished works of Parks' Fort Scott elementary school classmates. (Mike Hutmacher)

More and more, Wichita is becoming central to appreciating the life and work of the late Gordon Parks.

Three simultaneous exhibitions of his photographs – one from Boston, one a debut of Wichita State’s major 2014 acquisitions, and one a rare look at an interracial summer camp in New York in 1943 – are giving Kansans and other visitors an unprecedented immersion into the work of the celebrated photographer from Fort Scott.

Many of the more than 200 photographs that are on display at the Wichita Art Museum, the Ulrich Museum of Art, and the Kansas African American Museum have never been seen here before.

As of this weekend, all three exhibitions will be open, creating a sort of Gordon Parks crawl that can be taken now through early April. A free two-day symposium featuring national speakers as well as access to the exhibits will kick things up a notch Feb. 12 and 13.

“People who are interested in his photography will get a lot of out of it,” says Carole Branda, curator at the Kansas African American Museum. “It gives a broader sense of Gordon Parks as an artist.”

And the photos include an unpublished side of Parks, the first black photographer for Life magazine. Some of Parks’ most iconic Life photos are on view in the Ulrich exhibition, but so are outtakes from his photo essays for Life. The Wichita Art Museum’s exhibition features Parks’ photos from a visit in 1950 to his hometown of Fort Scott that Life commissioned but never published.

John Edwin Mason, a Virginia history professor who is writing a book about Parks’ Life photo essays, will be in Wichita at the symposium to talk about them.

“These are the ones that really shaped the thinking of many, many Americans and especially white Americans – that’s the audience he was trying to reach – on poverty and race in the United States,” Mason says. “This allows people to see the unpublished and published photographs, to be immersed in it, to get a sense of what he’s up to and the way he’s speaking.”

The exhibits cover not only Parks’ photos during the civil rights movement but also before and after, and of people of various races and nationalities. The vulnerability of the human person is poignantly laid bare to Parks’ lens and, by extension, to his viewers.

Three museums simultaneously staging Parks exhibitions is unprecedented as far as Mason knows, and is an indicator of how we “collectively embrace him as a native son,” says Patricia McDonnell, director of the Wichita Art Museum. The museums provide “a stage for the Wichita community to be immersed in the lessons Gordon Parks teaches us.”

Those lessons are for many more people than Wichitans, however. WAM is inserting a brochure about the symposium and the exhibits into copies of the Sunday New York Times delivered to regional subscribers including in Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

And even though Parks died in 2006, to Mason, who wrote a gallery guide to accompany the Ulrich exhibit, Parks’ star is just starting to rise among academics such as himself. He expects them to beat a path to Wichita State, which houses not only many of Parks’ photos but all of his personal papers.

I think people are finally beginning to realize he was more than a great photographer – and he was a great photographer – he was one of the significant interpreters of black life in the postwar period.

John Edwin Mason, Virginia history professor

“I think people are finally beginning to realize he was more than a great photographer – and he was a great photographer – he was one of the significant interpreters of black life in the postwar period,” Mason says.

If you want to spend an afternoon and engross yourself in all three exhibitions back-to-back-to-back, here’s what you need to know to navigate the exhibitions, along with accompanying events.

‘Back to Fort Scott’ at the Wichita Art Museum

Parks was born in Fort Scott in 1912 and left when he was 15. He returned in 1950 and took photos for an essay that was slated to appear in Life but never did. The 42 photos chronicle the everyday lives of African-Americans before the civil rights movement. “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Parks not only took pictures in Fort Scott, but he also tracked down classmates from his all-black school and photographed them in the cities where they’d moved. The photographs depict black Americans at home and in town, around the piano, on their way to church, at the theater. One photo from Fort Scott shows white spectators at a baseball game with two black girls also looking on.

Mason saw the exhibit when it was in Boston.

“It’s great,” he says. “It is extraordinary because it takes a deep, deep, deep dive into a single unpublished photo essay that ranks with the very best of anything he ever did.”

An accompanying exhibit, “Freedom Now! Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle,” features 72 photos taken by various other photographers. It highlights the active role black Americans took in the movement apart from the violent images that are most often seen.

“It’s a holistic history; let’s think of it more holistically,” McDonnell says. The “Freedom Now” photos show “an ethic of the time that hasn’t entered into the mental picture but that is so important.”

“Visual Justice: The Gordon Parks Photography Collection at Wichita State University” at the Ulrich

Wichita State scored a coup in 2014: acquiring 125 photos from Parks’ personal collection that came up for sale from the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, N.Y., the primary repository for Parks’ legacy. Mason says that the donors who helped make it happen, including Paula and Barry Downing, should still be patting themselves on the back, and the community should still be adding their pats.

All 125 photos are on view for the first time in “Visual Justice” at the Ulrich.

“This is a great time to see Gordon Parks and what we own now, and what we have on view covers the full scope of his artistic production – photos from 1941 to his late color work from 2004,” says Ulrich director Bob Workman.

The purchase of the photos, along with the earlier acquisition of Parks’ papers, has made Wichita State a necessary stop for people studying Parks.

Most of the photos appeared in Life, and most of them are from the 1950s and 1960s. They depict a gang leader in Harlem, black Muslims including Malcolm X, a family living in squalor in Brazil, and an impoverished family in Harlem.

Mason, who is working on the book about the Life photo essays, recently watched the movie “Shaft” – which Parks directed and which helped make him a celebrity – and said the film holds up as entertainment. But “I do think he was at his best as a photojournalist, and I think in the long run the most important work that had an impact on American society is the work he did for Life magazine that were on issues related to social justice, race and poverty that touched millions of hearts, that changed millions of minds.”

For more context to some of the photos, be sure to stop at the display cases that feature some of the actual magazines open to Parks’ photo essays, including part of a wrenching diary of his time spent with the Brazilian family. Also pick up Mason’s gallery guide at the entrance.

In addition, the Ulrich is exhibiting “Julia Brown: The Swim,” which illustrates an attempt to integrate a beach in Florida in 1964. It is on view through March 6, and Brown, of George Washington University, will be in Wichita on Feb. 12 to speak at the Parks symposium.

“The Power of the Image: Documentary Photographs by Gordon Parks” at the Kansas African American Museum

In addition to displaying 15 of the photographs by Parks that are part of its permanent collection, the Kansas African American Museum has obtained from the Library of Congress copies of photos Parks took at an interracial summer camp in New York.

“They’re really interesting,” curator Branda says. “It was 1943. They’re images of black and white children playing together, having meals, rest times, swimming and doing all kinds of activities, and they’re just really charming photos. They haven’t been seen very much.”

Photographs can’t be on display all the time because light degrades them, so the Parks’ photos from TKAAM’s permanent collection that are on view for this exhibit focus on his documentary work and some photos Parks took for the Farm Securities Administration, where he began his career, Branda says.

You can also see portraits of Parks taken by two of his children and read poems he wrote that are evocative of Kansas.

You may see a few duplicate photos between the collections; Ulrich director Workman said that Parks gave prints to different people during his life, so there may be multiples of some of his photographs.

The African American museum also is in the midst of a Gordon Parks film series, with two movies directed by Parks remaining: “Leadbelly,” at 7 p.m. March 11, and “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey,” at 7 p.m. April 8. Admission to the movies is free.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Karen Haas describes how one Gordon Parks photograph became the beginning of a search for other unpublished works of Parks' Fort Scott elementary school classmates. (Mike Hutmacher)

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich

GORDON PARKS EXHIBITIONS AND SYMPOSIUM

“Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through May 8, Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.- Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.; $7, $5 seniors, $3 ages 5 to 17 and students with ID, free for children under 5; free on Saturdays; 316-268-4921, wichitaartmuseum.org.

“Freedom Now! Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle,” also through May 8

“Visual Justice: The Gordon Parks Photography Collection at WSU,” through April 10, Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, 1845 N. Fairmount; free; guided tours available; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday, 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 316-978-3664, ulrich.wichita.edu.

“Julia Brown: The Swim,” through March 6

“The Power of the Image: Documentary Photographs by Gordon Parks,” through April 23, Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water St.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-4 p.m. Sat.; free parking in the county parking garage (ticket validated at museum); $5.50, $4.50 students and seniors, $2.50 children; 316-262-7651, tkaamuseum.net.

“Freedom to Expand” Community Symposium, Feb. 12 at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University and Feb. 13 at the Wichita Art Museum; free. Schedule:

Feb. 12: 3 p.m., welcome by Bob Workman, Ulrich director; 3:15 p.m., Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus on “When Images Are Deployed;” 4:15 p.m., artist Julia Brown of George Washington University, who put together the Ulrich exhibit “The Swim” about beach segregation in Florida, on “Unfitting Images;” 5:15 p.m., reception and exhibition viewing; 6 p.m., John Edwin Mason of the University of Virginia on “Visual Justice: Gordon Parks’ American Photographs.”

Feb. 13: 2 p.m., welcome by Wichita Art Museum director Patricia McDonnell; 2:15 p.m., retired professor and Dockum Drugstore sit-in participant Galyn Vesey on “Black Wichita, 1945-1958;” 3 p.m., Karen Haas, curator of photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and of the WAM exhibit on Parks, on “Gordon Parks in Kansas;’ 4 p.m., Martin Berger, professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and author and curator of “Freedom Now! Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle;” 5 to 6 p.m., reception and exhibition viewing.

Gordon Parks film series, screenings of films directed by Parks: “Leadbelly,” 7 p.m. March 11; “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey,” 7 p.m. April 8, Kansas African American Museum; free.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

  Comments