The Picture Show
11:12 am
Thu May 17, 2012

A Window Into Photographer Gordon Parks

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:47 am

If you want people to see something, it's probably best to put it somewhere visible. For a long time, that might have meant the pages of Life magazine. Today, perhaps that means a place where passers-by can stop for a minute, or tweet a photo, or even listen to an audio guide just by dialing a phone number. Say, for example, in New York City.

That's exactly what you'll find if you happen to be ambling around 6th Avenue, in the windows of the International Center of Photography.

The unorthodox digital display — three mounted monitors running a looped slideshow — is a tribute to Gordon Parks, the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine, who would have been 100 this year.

And although the installation is undeniably modern in contrast to the photos themselves, Parks might have approved of the idea.

"It's so Gordon Parks, in a way," says curator Maurice Berger. "He wanted to reach as many people as possible."

How do you sum up the life and work of someone like Parks — who escaped poverty in order to document it, who endured racism while photographing it, a writer-photographer-filmmaker whose work spans a huge swath of the 20th century?

It's next to impossible in this square-inch of cyberspace — and the ICP's window installation probably isn't meant to do it, either. It may be as simple as raising awareness.

"We want all the younger generations to know who this guy is," Berger says.

And who was he?

"He was a jack of all trades and, in a funny way, a master of all," says Berger. Case in point: On the Gordon Parks foundation website, you'll find photos of the civil rights movement and of poverty around the world — right next to glamorous fashion shoots.

He was a documentarian, "both of how far we've come and how far we need to go."

You can learn more about Parks in this 1997 interview, or on the Gordon Parks Foundation website.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.