Monday, June 4, 2012

Gordon Parks Centennial Gala: Lens on a Man & His Time

Gordon Parks on the set of "The Learning Tree" in 1968. Photo by Norman E. Tanis.

TOO few people know Gordon Parks, especially with the rise of Jordin Sparks.

The latter is the pop/R&B phenomenon who set the world abuzz as the winner of the sixth season of “American Idol.” Seventeen at the time, she was the youngest winner of that singing competition until last month when she was supplanted by 10th season winner Scotty McCreery, also 17 but a few months younger at the time of his victory.

The former is a legend, visionary and trailblazer – a renaissance man – who has many and sundry accomplishments. He will be remembered tomorrow evening at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The occasion is a star-studded fundraising gala marking the centennial year of the birth of Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (30 Nov. 1912 – 7 March 2006) into crushing poverty in Jim Crow Kansas.

Alicia Keys will be among the honorees at the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala. Photo by Getty Images.

When speaking about GP to the uninitiated, one doesn’t always know what reference point to cite first in his long and storied career. He came to the notice of Yours Truly through his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons,” a book along with Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” that every black man in America should have in his library.

For others, a GP reference point could be as the director of the first “Shaft.” The film spawned a franchise and, unwittingly, a seedy genre – blaxploitation films. “Shaft” – smooth and suave and in the spirit of James Bond – set a standard that soon plummeted in the hands of unscrupulous sorts who cared more about profiteering than poor portrayals. Of course, GP’s other landmark film is “The Learning Tree.” In making it he became the first black to produce and direct a major Hollywood film.

At the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala at MoMa tomorrow, scores, including honorees and fellow trailblazers Alicia Keys, Annie Leibovitz and Richard Plepler, will remember these and other GP accomplishments. During the evening, Gordon Parks Centennial Scholarships with be presented to those pursuing careers in the arts.

Gordon Parks didn't allow racial barriers to deter him from his dreams. Photo courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

In the '90s, GP journeyed up to Boston from New York for a photography event at Boston University (BU) where he was being honored. No doubt, in referencing the man, most would start with photography. Far more people who don’t know the man know his pictures, particularly the then-controversial “American Gothic” in 1942, a deliberate subversion of Grant Wood's iconic painting. In the photo, Ella Watson is not holding a pitchfork, but a broom and mop, illustrating the sole value of blacks in the United States at the time: to do menial work. GP took "American Gothic" and a series of others during his time as an FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographer.

“American Gothic” is currently playing as part of a slideshow, along with a large-scale photo mural of “Emerging Man.” The latter photo depicts a black man rising up from a concrete abyss, faint lights and an even more obscured landscape in the distance. The man could be GP himself, for the photo captures the very essence of his life. The works are part of New York-based International Center of Photography’s centennial celebration, “Gordon Parks: 100 Years” (through 6 January). More specifically, the photographs are appearing on three large flat screens in the center’s window, along with the mural, on 6th Avenue and 43rd Street for all the world that passes by to see.

Gordon Parks' "American Gothic" is considered his most famous photograph.

But I digress. After the BU presentation, GP deigned to hold court with a few photography students and journalists. I don’t recall the exact question – something along the lines of a recipe for success – but I do recall GP’s response.

The various committees that put together the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala, along with The Gordon Parks Foundation, is a compilation of boldface names or boldface names-in-the-making: Elizabeth Edelman, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Russell Simmons, Karl Lagerfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Iman, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, Serena Tufo and former GP flame Gloria Vanderbilt. GV’s son, Anderson Cooper, is the evening's master of ceremonies.

"Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952" is on display at the International Center of Photography as part of the installation, "Gordon Parks: 100 Years."Photo courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

This group is testimony to GP’s philosophy and thoughtful response to his BU interlocutor, “You’ve got to have a universality about yourself.”

Visit to learn more about the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala, including dinner ticket information; visit to learn more about “Gordon Parks: 100 Years.”

No comments :

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
Based on a work at .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at .