For once, blacks and white find themselves on the same side of a barrier. Three children peer through a barbed-wire fence, their backs to a dirty, weathered wood-frame house. The sole white boy grasps the harsh metal with both hands, while the boy at center holds out a six shooter in a restless gesture. From his upturned face and outstretched arm, he could almost be reeling from a gunshot himself. The third boy peeks out shyly from behind a bush and tantalizingly broad gaps in the fence, both his pistol and wide eyes aimed directly at the viewer. For Gordon Parks, in Alabama in 1956, people can reach out, but the barriers remain.
They may be legal or emotional barriers—or both at once. Even in that one photo, neither black child shares his companion's innocent confidence and broad grin. And even when blacks and whites occupy the same physical space, the distance between them seems insurmountable. In a Georgia airline terminal, a black nurse holds a blond infant just one seat away from a well-dressed white woman, who looks right past them in singular disdain.
A black woman lays her hand on the shoulder of her little girl, much like a white girl opening her arms to another before her, but the blacks are only window shopping, and the cold, sallow flesh before them belongs to mannequins. Reflections in the store window both multiply and dash hopes of reconciliation. "Segregation Story" gathers all twenty-six of the photos from Life magazine that year, only that first one with a genuinely shared space. Parks was in Mobile and Shady Grove more than a decade before his "A Harlem Family" and his movie Shaft. Born in 1912, he had been a day laborer, brothel pianist, and railway porter before taking up the camera, nurturing his outrage and identification with his subjects. Yet, he conveys barriers through the very distance between them and him. The interior of a barber shop, framed by black walls to either side, seems impossibly far away. Black girls look through still another fence, this time away from the camera.
Parks gives pride of place to three families, but his original title, "The Portraits: Open and Hidden," conveys just how elusive connections can be. The photos make clear the obstacles in prejudice and law with the plainest means possible, signs like Colored Entrance and Lots for Colored. Blacks walk past the words White Only as if inured to it, on their way to a segregated drinking fountain. Hidden obstacles matter, too, all the more as they are inextricable from day-to-day life and dignity. A farm worker in overalls looks warily ahead, much as for Walker Evans, his eyes in shadow. A schoolroom rests empty, its desks scattered as if by a natural disaster.
Life Magazine was always accessible, although Gary Winogrand and Ansel Adams brought their art to it as well, and Parks was never less than earnest and colorful. The series is no less thoughtful and relevant for that. A girl standing in a doorway, a majestic tree, an elderly couple on their prized settee, and railroad tracks receding to infinity anchor compositions, much as they anchored homes and lives. A front porch holds dead center of another photo, framed like a window onto its occupants. Others take their ease in benches in front of a convenience store, to either side of the door. The symmetry brings out yet another barrier in the roadway. The work's basic message is familiar from today: black lives matter. Subjects have intellectual and emotional resources to spare, but only barely. A blackboard attests to everyday promises and disappointments with chalk faces, a sum that correctly adds to one hundred, and a kind of found poetry: you can steal my love. A bare-chested young man looks down as if reading, and kids on the bed behind him really are, but his lap holds not a book but a shotgun, and no one here can know when the explosion of race in America will begin.
Gordon Parks Segregation Story Salon 94 Freemans 1 Freeman Alley Lower Manhattan - East Map 212 529 7400 salon94.com Nov 4 through Sun, Dec 20, 2015 Hours: Tues 1 to 6; Wed - Sat, 11 to 6