Howard University has acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of legendary Black photographer Gordon Parks. Though Parks died in 2006 at age 93, his legacy – as well as those whose images he captured with his camera – lives on through his iconic collections.
Now Howard will be home to one of them.
The Gordon Parks Legacy Collection will reside in the popular HBCU’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center so faculty and students can access it for their coursework and research needs, The Washington Post reported.
It’s a full circle, posthumous moment for Parks who began his prolific career chronicling the everyday life of Black Americans in the Washington, D.C. Area – including students at Howard.
The collection includes photos of Black Americans in Chicago and Minneapolis. It ends with a 1990 photo of award-winning Black director Spike Lee. Having the collection housed at Howard will raise the profile of the university, said Benjamin Talton, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
“Gordon Parks is central to telling the story of African American life, and bringing humanity to that narrative,” Talton told the Post. “Howard University is at the center of the African American experience globally. Obviously, Black life meant something to Gordon Parks. To have a Gordon Parks collection at Howard University is like a foot in a shoe, and I think he’d be pleased.”
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The photos were curated by the university and the Gordon Parks Foundation by selecting images with educational value, the foundation’s executive director Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said.
“The arc of this collection is looking at Black pride. It chronicles his career in a way that is accessible to students,” Kunhardt said. “He’s not just a portraitist. He’s a humanitarian. He was using his camera to show poverty and despair. His pictures could be tough, but they told a story.”
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The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born and raised in Fort Scott, Kansas. He taught himself photography after being exposed to the art and buying himself a used camera from a Seattle pawnshop.
Parks became a sought-after fashion photographer but he also rose to fame for intentionally using his lens to capture and tell stories of race, poverty, civil rights and the daily life of Black Americans.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera,” Parks once said.
He went on to have one of the most prolific careers on record and broke many color barriers as the first Black photographer to shoot for Life and Vogue magazines, the first photographer to be awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and the first Black photographer to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Parks was also the first Black filmmaker to produce, direct and score a film for a major Hollywood studio — “The Learning Tree” for Warner Brothers. He was also the creative mind behind the movie “Shaft” and has portraits of some of Black America’s most prominent icons including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.
Talton said Howard is blessed to have a piece of Parks’ legacy.
“They are not just photographs, they are studies. Gordon Parks immersed himself in Chicago, in Harlem, in Washington, in Rio de Janeiro,” Talton said. “It is about the art, but it is about Gordon Parks the person. It’s about technique, and light and angles, but also about dropping into the second half of the 20th century.”
PHOTO: With his “American Gothic” looking over his shoulder, photographer Gordon Parks gestures while speaking at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington Tuesday Sept. 9, 1997 during the opening of an exhibit of his works entitled “Half Past Autumn.” Painting, sculpture, poetry, music, history, at 84 Parks practices all the old arts but he gives first place to the new one he calls his his “weapon against poverty and racism” – photography. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)