Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott
At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
by Charles McGuigan
An exhibition featuring works by the noted African American photographer Gordon Parks will be on view from July 23 to October 30 at the VMFA. The 42 photographs that comprise Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott examine the realities of life in the segregated America of the fifties.
Text Box: [Husband and Wife, Sunday morning, Detroit, Michigan,n 1950, Gordon Parks (American 1912-2006), Photograph, gelatin silver print]
As the first African American photographer hired full time by Life magazine, Parks was frequently given assignments involving social issues affecting black America. For an assignment on the impact of school segregation, Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas to reconnect with childhood friends – all of whom went to the same all-black elementary school. To hear their stories, Parks traveled to Kansas City, Saint Louis, Columbus, Detroit, and Chicago, and his narrative shifted its focus to the Great Migration north by African Americans. The resulting series of photographs were intended to accompany an article he planned to call “Back to Fort Scott,” but his story was never published. Organized around each of these cities and families, this VMFA exhibit features previously unpublished photographs as well as a seven-page draft of Parks’ text for the article, and presents a rarely seen view of the everyday lives of African Americans years before the civil rights movement began in earnest.
A section of the exhibition is exclusive to this presentation. Parks at Life: Works from VMFA’s Collection includes eight photographs by Parks that appeared in subsequent photo essays for Life, and copies of those issues will also be on display.
“We are honored to present an exhibition featuring works by Gordon Parks, one of the most celebrated African American artists of his time, whose photographs reveal so much about this significant moment in our nation’s history.” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges says. “We are also pleased that this exhibition gives us an opportunity to highlight photographs by Gordon Parks from our own collection alongside those from the Gordon Parks Foundation.”
A groundbreaking photographer, musician, writer, and film director, Gordon Parks used his talents to shape the public’s understanding of pressing social issues. Several of his photo essays that were published in Life magazine introduced millions of readers to ideas that challenged, as well as changed, the way they saw their nation and themselves. A pioneer among black filmmakers, Parks wrote and directed The Learning Tree (1969), which was based on his autobiography, and directed the popular movie Shaft (1971), which exemplified the blaxploitation genre and had an award-winning soundtrack. The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves his work, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media, and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”