Photo Essay Civil Rights

Going to church. Playing around the house. Window shopping. These are the types of everyday, seemingly innocuous activities that wound up before the lens of iconic civil rights photographer Gordon Parks. Parks, a self-taught artist, believed in the photographic medium as a weapon of change, capable of awakening people's hearts and undoing prejudice.

An exhibition of Parks' rare color photographs, entitled "Gordon Parks: Segregation Story," will go on view this fall at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The photos capture a particularly disturbing moment in American history, captured via the lives of an African American family, the Thorntons, living under Jim Crow segregation in 1950s Alabama.

The images, originally titled "The Restraints: Open and Hidden," were first taken for a photo essay for Life Magazine in 1956. The essay chronicles the lesser-seen daily effects of racial discrimination, revealing how prejudice pervades even the most banal and personal of daily occurrences. Parks doesn't photograph protests, rallies, acts of violence or momentous milestones in civil rights history. No, he prefers the quieter moments in and around the home.

Some photos focus on inequality -- a "colored" line at an ice cream stand or black children window shopping amongst all white mannequins. Others hint ominously at violence, as one child plays with a gun and another examines it solemnly. Such images are especially haunting in retrospect, considering the recent death toll of American black men in this country, over half a century after these photographs were taken.

Yet the majority of Parks' photos focus on the positive over the negative, showing a different breed of civil rights documentation. In the image below, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton sit firmly, proud and composed, affirming their existence. Instead of highlighting discrimination here, Parks emphasizes the similarities that bind all Americans: spending time in the home, being with family, exploring nature. Parks' images revealed what so many Americans struggled to understand: the human link that connects us all.

"More than anything, the 'Segregation Series' challenged the abiding myth of racism: that the races are innately unequal, a delusion that allows one group to declare its superiority over another by capriciously ascribing to it negative traits, abnormalities or pathologies," Maurice Berger wrote in The New York Times. "It is the very fullness, even ordinariness, of the lives of the Thornton family that most effectively contests these notions of difference, which had flourished in a popular culture that offered no more than an incomplete or distorted view of African-American life."

Parks' photographs pick away at a dark moment in history in bright colors, spreading knowledge and hope simultaneously with the click of a camera. Although we wish these photographs depicted a world entirely different than the one we live in today, recent events show differently. The deaths of unarmed black men all over America reveal we may need Parks' visual essay more today than we would have expected, or hoped.

Now is as good a time as ever to remind each other, whether through Parks' photographs or a #MyBlackLifeMatters hashtag, that every human life matters.

"I've been asked if I think there will ever come a time when all people come together," Parks once said. "I would like to think there will. All we can do is hope and dream and work toward that end. And that's what I've tried to do all my life."

“Gordon Parks: Segregation Story" will be on view from November 15, 2014 until June 7, 2015 at The High Museum in Atlanta.

The hands of the father and his young daughter wave emphatically: the two are not in agreement. The man talks. His eyes are closed; he looks pained. The child listens, but gazes at a plate of cookies on the dinner table.

The scene is not unusual: a father is telling his daughter that she will not be going to an amusement park. But he is doing so not because it is a school day, or because he is punishing her. He fears for her safety.

The father is Martin Luther King Jr.; the child is his 7-year-old daughter Yolanda; and the two are engaged in a conversation that no parent wants to have. He is explaining to the girl for the first time the hazards of segregation and the reasons she cannot visit Fun Town, a popular but restricted theme park in Atlanta.

James Karales, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New YorkPassive Resistance Training, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, 1960.

This photograph, (Slide 6) which first appeared in a 1963 photo essay in Look magazine, is emotionally intimate and psychologically insightful, like many of the images in “Controversy and Hope: The Civil Rights Photographs of James Karales” (University of South Carolina Press). The book, by Julian Cox, provides a singular opportunity to re-evaluate the innovative work of Mr. Karales, who died in 2002, at age 71.

As Dr. King’s aide and confidante Andrew Young notes in the book’s foreword, Mr. Karales’s photographs were distinguished by their ability to reveal the “complexity of emotions intertwined with the hopes and hardships of the struggle.” Their personal, contemplative approach was not always in step with a mainstream press enthralled by the high drama of historic speeches, conflagrations and demonstrations. This approach may also have been the reason Dr. King, who was fiercely protective of his family, granted the photographer unprecedented access to them.

Mr. Karales typically favored the individual over the collective, and his photographs are more like artful portraits than the straightforward documentation of momentous events. In his reporting on the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in the spring of 1965, for example, he frequently photographed participants — the famous and the unknown — up close, carefully rendering their individuality and state of mind.

Photographer unknown, courtesy of the estate of James KaralesJames Karales in Vietnam, 1965.

His images of the march resonate with nuances of emotion and psychology: a tight, brooding shot of a young demonstrator in profile; the bitter, scowling face of a segregationist being arrested (Slide 16); a black child nestled contently on the shoulders of a bearded white man (Slide 11); the indelibly memorable photograph of an African-American teenager staring wearily into the camera (Slide 12), the word “vote” emblazoned on his whitewashed forehead.

This intimate viewpoint aligned Mr. Karales more with the strategies of the black press than those of the mainstream media. Just as the mainstream media dispensed profiles about white people — relegating people of color to stereotypical, sensationalistic or communal reporting — publications owned and operated by African-Americans covered the private lives of the ordinary and famous alike.

These profiles, accompanied by photographs or drawings, were the mainstay of one of the earliest black pictorial magazines, The Crisis, edited by the civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. In the civil rights era, the profiles continued to have a central role in the periodicals of the Johnson Publishing Company — Ebony, Jet and Tan, the first black women’s magazine — subtly challenging the status quo by emphasizing, rather than concealing, African-American humanity, individuality and psychological nuance.

If Mr. Karales’s method was akin to that of the black press, it was driven not by sympathy — the motivation Mr. Cox ascribes to it — but by empathy. Born into an immigrant Greek family in Canton, Ohio, in 1930, Mr. Karales struggled to learn English. He experienced firsthand the hardships of a community routinely viewed as exotic, inferior and not quite American. After working blue-collar manufacturing jobs, he enrolled in Ohio University and studied photography.

James Karales, courtesy of the estate of James KaralesHermes Coffee House, Canton, Ohio, 1953.

Mr. Karales was determined to use his camera in the service of social justice. From his first photo-essay — a tender, keenly observed profile of Canton’s working-class, Greek-American community (above) — he strove to reveal the complexity of his subjects by stressing the individual details lost amid collective stereotypes and biases.

Over a half-century career, including a staff position at Look that gave him a national platform, Mr. Karales continually fixed his lens on the marginal, the besieged and the politically fraught: coal miners in the racially integrated but economically depressed town of Rendville, Ohio; racial discrimination in organized religion; the quagmire of the Vietnam War; and segregation in New York City. (Those last photographs went unpublished, perhaps because they upended the era’s myth of Northern racial tolerance.)

Nowhere is Mr. Karales’s defiance of racial clichés more apparent than in his 1960 Look profile of Richard Adams, a pioneering speech therapist and social worker. The photo-essay inverted racial typecasting: Adams was black, his students were mostly white, and they coexisted not in a Northern city but in rural Iowa. These images of adoring youngsters and their dedicated teacher spoke to the possibility of racial harmony. But they also called into question an abiding myth of integration: that African-Americans had the most to gain from it.

Mr. Karales’s focus on the individual succeeded — paradoxically, as Mr. Cox notes — because it added to his work “some sense of a common, shared humanity.” By affirming our fundamental similarities, his images implored Americans, in an age of turmoil and transition, to re-examine their own humanity. Rather than presenting predictable scenes of racial disunity, they challenged a nation to face the individuals it had reduced to collective symbols of fear, condescension and hate. There, in the midst of crowds and chaos, he found one person, one image.

James Karales, courtesy of the estate of James KaralesMartin Luther King Jr. and Martin Luther King III, Atlanta, 1962.

Maurice Berger is a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a consulting curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. He is the author of 11 books, including a memoir, “White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness.” He curated a show, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” and contributed essays to “Gordon Parks: Collected Works” (Steidl, 2013).

Follow @MauriceBerger and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook.

Race Stories

A continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race by the professor and curator Maurice Berger.


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