Gordon Parks remains relevant

Kansas-born photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks is as celebrated as ever.
Kansas-born photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks is as celebrated as ever. The Wichita Eagle

Eight years after his death, Kansas-born photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks is as celebrated as ever, with the impressive assistance of Wichita State University’s prized archive of Parks documents.

His relevance only seems to grow, too.

Events in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City and nationwide have demonstrated the persistence of the racial divide Parks documented so potently with his camera – which he said he realized “could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.”

Ted Ayres, vice president and general counsel of WSU, credits the Gordon Parks Foundation of Pleasantville, N.Y., for keeping Parks’ work and life at the forefront and said: “I’m proud to say that Wichita State has a very significant role to play in sharing his work with the world.”

WSU’s role was noted in a New York Times article on “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” an exhibition scheduled for Jan. 17 through Sept. 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The show will feature images that Parks took in 1950 for an unpublished Life photo essay about his return to Fort Scott for the first time in 23 years. Parks also tracked down and photographed some of classmates he’d known at their segregated school. His notes became a resource for exhibition curator Karen Haas, who visited WSU and spent time looking at special collections materials.

Lorraine Madway, curator of WSU’s special collections, told the Times: “There are those moments in an archive when you know you’ve found the gold, and this is one of them. It’s a wonderful example of micro-history. It’s not only that there is so much material written at a specific time in people’s lives, but then there are Parks’ reflections on it later.”

The Gordon Parks Foundation was the source of the Boston exhibition’s prints as well as the 40 color images in “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” on view through June 7 at the High Museum in Atlanta, in which Parks documented an extended African-American family living in segregated Alabama. A Parks show also is scheduled for a Toronto gallery in 2015.

At WSU, which has an ongoing Gordon Parks Lecture Series, the Ulrich Museum of Art plans a 2016 exhibition of about 120 photographs that WSU bought early this year from the Gordon Parks Foundation with the generous help of Wichita philanthropists Paula and Barry Downing.

Ayres said it’s hard to know how many scholars and curators might be using WSU’s Parks archive, because a large portion of the materials have been digitized and made available online, but that he’s pleased with the ongoing attention to Parks’ work and WSU’s part in it so far.

Credit is due to Ayres and all others who helped raise $505,500 to secure Parks’ letters and other personal items for WSU, which now is able to help further Parks’ legacy.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman