A Choice of Weapons

After a hardscrabble life in the Depression, Gordon Parks picked up a camera instead of a gun. But as a massive retrospective of his work reveals, his sympathies have often remained with those who went the other way.

In the early scenes of Gordon Parks's novel The Learning Tree, a wayward teen named Marcus suffers through Christmas in the Spit's School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory in the desolate Kansas of the 1920s. "Marcus Savage was black and tough," Parks writes; his mother is dead, his father is a drunk, and the boy has an oversized body and an undersized intellect for his years.

Caught stealing apples by a neighboring farmer who tried to whip him and got beaten in turn, Marcus takes to Spit's School with a despairing nihilism. When the Reverend Broadnap comes for a Christmas visit with fruit and candy, and prays for God to "'wash his black sins away in the white snows of... holy Christmas,'" Marcus turns vituperative. "'Shut up ! Shut up!,' Marcus shouted, 'and git the hell out'a here... I don't want'a hear none of your Uncle Tom prayin' over me!'"

Meanwhile, across town in the warmth of the modest Winger home, Newton and his family exchange gifts: a blouse, a robe, a pipe, a dictionary for the boy. Though Newt too had been in the apple orchard, he avoided the assault, and with his mother's prodding he has pledged to work weekends on the farm.

Yet not every day is Christmas, and in the course of The Learning Tree, Newt will see black men shot in the back by the town's sadistic sheriff. A white guidance counselor will turn him away from the college-preparatory classes that she considers useless for his future as a porter. Yet Newt, with his mother's good counsel, takes it all in turn.

Gordon Parks, born one of 15 children to upstanding Methodist dirt farmers in Fort Scott, Kansas, drew heavily on his boyhood in writing The Learning Tree, and their trials through segregation speak to his own experiences. And though Parks identifies with Newt and the Wingers' forbearance, Marcus--a resentful, despondent realist--makes a strong case for embracing despair. Perhaps his case is the stronger one.

The retrospective of Gordon Parks's career, comprising 220 photographs, poems, and compositions--currently on exhibit at the recently reopened Minnesota Museum of American Art--demonstrates this same tension, time and again. In more than 50 years of work, and in a half-dozen mediums, Parks has brought a generous and searingly honest aesthetic to case studies of people who have crossed over to the other side of hope: slum dwellers in Brazil, gang members in Harlem, criminals in Chicago. Parks's first memoir, A Choice of Weapons, lays out the argument for why the author took to a pawn-store camera over a six-gun--though as Parks's amazing odyssey makes clear, the choice has not been uncomplicated, and he's had an uncomfortably close acquaintance with poverty, racism, and crime. Parks has considered the cul-de-sacs his life could have taken; he has seen the Marcus in himself and turned away.

What Parks has done instead is produce as prolific and varied a body of work as can be readily imagined, and in the process he's accumulated a biography that defies easy summary. Parks has photographed for the Farm Security Administration, Vogue, and Life; he's written 16 books of poetry, autobiography, and fiction (the latest of which, Half Past Autumn, contains the material from this traveling retrospective); he's composed for solo piano, symphony, and the ballet; and he's directed a half-dozen movies, including the first major studio release by an African American.

Born in 1912, Parks attended a segregated elementary school in Kansas; the high school, though ostensibly integrated, barred black students from athletics and school events. He was 16 years old when his mother, Sarah, died. The moral compass of the family, she'd arranged for him to join his older sister Peggy and her husband in St. Paul. His "father's farewell," Parks writes in the autobiography Voices in the Mirror, "was muted and tautly drawn... 'Just mind your mother's teaching and you'll make out all right,'" he said.

Parks would, and he did.

Yet in the shorter term, Parks clashed with his brother-in-law, and one night just a few weeks into his stay, the man threw him out of the house and into subzero weather. Parks had two dollars in his pocket and a cardboard suitcase. For another week, school would be closed for the Christmas break. He spent these days homeless, bouncing between Jim Williams's pool hall during the day and the trolley cars at night. One morning, hungry and broke, Parks drew a knife on one of the conductors, and then, in shame, offered to sell it to him in exchange for breakfast. A few days later as school restarted, Parks fought a skinny dog for a pigeon and won; he promptly defeathered the bird, roasted it over a paper fire, and ate it. In the months that followed, Parks found a somewhat remunerative job playing piano in a St. Paul brothel until a fatal stabbing closed the house.

Parks dropped out of high school, and in the ensuing years, he cleared tables as a busboy at the Minneapolis Club, cleaned a flophouse in Chicago (where he nearly shot the manager after being stiffed on a paycheck), and toured one winter with a semiprofessional basketball team. While Parks was busing tables in a Chicago hotel, a white bandleader heard him playing the piano and invited him on tour, eventually depositing him in New York City and stranding him there. At the advice of the band's drummer, Parks took the A Train all the way to 145th Street. "That was the highest number," he writes. "Best to think high at a time like that." Unfortunately, after a few weeks of unemployment, Parks was forced to sink to a lower high; he started making deliveries for a dope dealer.

A year-long stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps followed, and while enlisted, Parks married his first wife, Sally Alvin. The couple moved back to Minnesota and in the coming years they would have a daughter and two sons. Parks's next job as a porter on the North Coast Limited was to prove his last days in the service profession. Reading the magazines that passengers had left behind, Parks discovered the seminal work of the great Depression-era documentary photographers--Walker Evans, Jack Delano, John Vachon, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Carl Mydans--and this inspired him to invest in a used camera that he would deem "his weapon against poverty and racism." After being fired from the train--he threatened the dining-car steward with a bread knife after a racial incident--Parks put his new weapon to the test.

What arrived next, finally, was an uninterrupted string of successes: a show in Chicago; an unexpected opportunity to shoot fashion for an upscale Minneapolis couture; and ultimately, a chance to work for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C. as the agency's first black photographer. Parks, inundated by a mean logic of hardship and injustice, had chosen not to believe in that logic; compare the phenomenon to that of a man standing neck-deep in rising water while insisting that he's mostly dry.

And yet at this fortuitous juncture in Parks's sojourn, an unlikely one for him to have ever reached, the story becomes even more incredible, and it can be told through his pictures.

"American Gothic" may be the most famous piece in the Parks oeuvre and it is one of the first. Shot in 1942 within the offices of the FSA, the photo features a black charwoman, Ella Watson, standing before an American flag with a mop in the background and a broom in the fore--like Grant Wood's stoic farmers planted in front of their barn. She wears round spectacles and a frumpy dress and her jaw is hard and mannish. Her eyes see no pleasure, and that tacit resignation speaks more convincingly than any rhetoric of hope or change. The focus is tight and the individual broom bristles jut forward akimbo from the frame; the stars of the states line up in orderly rows, out of focus.

"American Gothic," like the rest of Parks's FSA work, is poetic and unsentimental. In one piece, a line of Benedictine nuns crosses a yard, their cowled heads turned down to the scripture, a beach tree bending in the foreground of a wind-swept prairie. In another, a woman props up her young son from the armpits, his jaw slack and his mouth a black hole; the white satin of Babe Ruth's open casket fills the lower right-hand corner of the frame.

Upon the dissolution of the FSA photographic program, Stryker sent Parks to work for the Office of War and Information where he was assigned to shoot one of the first companies of black airmen. These photos convey the sexy mechanical curves now familiar from car ads, and a cocky heroism familiar to much war photography. And conservative politicians in Washington, anticipating just this, pulled Parks off the job before the pilots shipped overseas, depriving them of the publicity and Parks of a livelihood.

Parks next tried to find work in New York, where he visited the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Though the man declared that he was impressed by Parks's portfolio, no assignments were to follow. "'I'm sorry to be frank with you,'" Parks recounts the man saying in his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, "'but there is an inflexible rule here in the Hearst organization that forbids our hiring Negroes.'" Parks took the same pictures to Condé Nast, and starting shooting fashion for Glamour and then Vogue.

Surprisingly, some of Parks's most challenging photography would appear in the eminently commercial pages of Life magazine, where he would create pleasant portraits of American artists and musicians, while also capturing some of his grimmest documentary series. One of these chronicles a few bloody weeks with the Midtowners, a New York youth gang then involved in a turf war. In one picture, a teen crouches in a darkened room, his right hand planted in a thick layer of crumbling tile, his left holding half a brick. In another, a teen bloodied at the mouth and chin, wearing a blood-spattered, double-breasted pinstripe jacket, lies supine on the ground, hands balled in fists above his head, eyes closed. At the top of the frame, a disembodied hand touches his sleeve. This young man is not going to get up.

And as Parks has looked for violence, violence has looked for him. After a white colleague greeted Parks with a quick kiss in public, three Texas men were dissuaded from attacking him only after he purchased a loaded gun in front of their eyes. Following the murder of Malcolm X, the photographer and his family were sent overseas, as the FBI suggested that the Nation of Islam had targeted Parks as a close friend of the slain leader. (Ironically, Parks's name resurfaced in the news a few years ago when the FBI investigated his goddaughter, Qubilah Shabazz, for allegedly plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan.) Ultimately, instead of doing harm, Parks has put himself in harm's way, and he's told stories of the life there without sensationalism, cheap emotion, or easy empathy.

At the conclusion of the movie Leadbelly, a biopic that Parks directed in 1976, its title character languishes in a Southern jail. Escaped from prison and recaptured, he begins to find himself drained of the wrath that has accompanied him on his often wretched journeys through the South. He's stabbed a white man in a dance hall, and shot a black one; he'll most likely die on the chain gang.

It is at this point that Leadbelly gets a chance to set his songs to tape, as the Lomaxes of the Library of Congress pay a visit to the prison. They record Huddie Ledbetter's autobiography and songs in the warden's office. Then it's back to the dusty yard. Yet in the closing shot, we see a temporarily revivified Leadbelly, gray-haired, broad and bare-chested, breaking rocks in dizzying heat. The camera pans across his chains and moves closer, as Leadbelly raises the pickaxe and begins to swing through. And then the shot freezes. That's the end.

The Minnesota Museum of American Art's retrospective of Gordon Parks's work is on display through May 17. Call 292-4355.

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